By Grigol Vashadze, Foreign Minister of Georgia
In August 2008, thousands of Russian troops and armour rolled into Georgia, as Russian aviation was pounding the country’s military, infrastructural and civilian targets. Four years on, Georgia stands strong in asserting its identity as a liberal, democratic state, its economy is surging ahead and the government works hard to take care of the persons displaced during the conflict. Our friends stood by us in 2008. We need their support still so that those residing in the 20% of our territory occupied by Russia can partake in and benefit from the progress Georgia has achieved.
The pictures of war on major news networks mean destruction, devastation and despair for those embroiled in conflict. If the eye of an international reporter ever returns to those areas as the years pass, one usually sees a grim reality, where human suffering prevails,with no hope in sight. This was one possible scenario for my country as well, as it was invaded by its neighbour vastly superior in size and military capabilities. Still worse was the threat of obliteration of our very statehood and of our way of life.
Yet neither of these was to pass. Georgian people defended their homeland. Our friends and allies stood by us on the international arena to rebuke the invasion. Georgia keeps its identity as a free nation and is moving ahead, though ever-mindful of the threat that is still looming from the two Russian military bases that were set up on occupied territories in violation of the ceasefire agreement and fundamental principles of international law.
The country withstood the shock and managed to rebound to achieve steady economic growth, with the real GDP growing 6.4% in 2010 and 7% in 2011. As this year wanes, we expect to be opening a major railway route linking Central Asia with Turkey and onwards to Europe. The UN World Tourism Organization singled out Georgia for its remarkable growth in tourism – arrivals have almost tripled in the past five years, from just below a million in 2006 to close to 3 million in 2011. Georgia still remains one of the safest and least corrupt countries in Europe, where it is easy to do business.
Georgia’s democratic choice remains unshaken. The citizens will vote on 1 October to elect the new parliament and to rejuvenate our democracy. Our public service halls – the key way in which citizens interact with the government on a daily basis – won a prize at the UN’s world-wide, peer-nominated contest for its innovative design of services. Our nation is negotiating the association agreement and the free trade agreement with the EU, implementing reforms to strengthen our justice system, local governance and penitentiaries.
While we are proud of our successes, we call attention to the plight of the thousands who were displaced during the war, whose homes were often razed to the ground in acts of ethnic cleansing. Immediately after the war, the government made sure that most of these families met the winter of 2008 under their new and own roofs, but their rights are far from being acknowledged, their loss is far from compensated. Justice is yet to be restored.
As we work to advance our nation, we need the help and support of the international community to condemn and reverse the occupation, to make our successes available to those that reside in the 20% of Georgian territory currently occupied by Russian troops. In the 21st century, no power can afford to lock people behind barbed wire, to raze villages to give way to military bases, to deprive children of the right to study in their mother tongue, to make carrying a gun the only available employment.
We have reached out to all those who reside in occupied territories wishing to engage them, to offer services, to build confidence and to restore the social fabric that linked our communities for centuries. Georgia keeps neighbourly relations with the Russian people – we cancelled visa requirements for all Russian citizens this March and the tourists have poured in, despite the Kremlin’s fear propaganda. We are ready to engage in constructive talks with Russia. Georgia made a unilateral pledge not to use force.There has been no reciprocity, but we hope, often beyond hope, that the hearts and minds in Moscow will slowly be changing.
Georgia has achieved a lot, but we still need a friendly hand so that all of our compatriots may live in peace, dignity and security. The governments and civil society of the free world should continue delivering loud and clear messages to the government of the Russian Federation that the military occupation cannot be tolerated, that systematic abuses of human rights cannot be window-dressed as nation-building, that ethnic cleansing has no place in modern society.
Four years after the war, the Georgian nation stands tall, looks into the future and demands justice for all of its residents.