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25th Oct 2021

EU-Georgia trade talks proving 'difficult', minister says

  • An EU team visiting a house built for refugees from the 2008 war (Photo: EUobserver)

Preliminary talks on a free-trade regime are the "most difficult" part of a broad Association Agreement currently being negotiated between Georgia and the EU, possibly due to objections Tbilisi has raised against Russia joining the World Trade Organisation, Georgia's chief negotiator has said in an interview.

Eight months since the start of talks on an EU-Georgia Association Agreement, progress has been made in several chapters, but the preliminary negotiations of a "Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement" are stuck, Tornike Gordadze, a junior foreign minister in charge of the negotiations told this website on Saturday (12 February) after meetings with EU officials.

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"We had quite serious preconditions in 2008, which we considered we've fulfilled and even went beyond. For instance, we've unilaterally abolished import taxes on 86 percent of the goods from the EU and made progress on food safety and intellectual property rights," he explained.

But during talks with European Commission officials in charge of trade, Mr Gordadze got the "impression that they have changed the preconditions: Now the ones that were set for concluding the negotiations are the same for starting the negotiations," he said.

Several reasons spring to mind, the 35-year old French-educated minister said. One may be that "it takes the same resources and amount of time" in negotiating a free-trade agreement with Georgia as it takes for instance with Japan. "So guess who is more important?" he asked.

"Some people also say the change could be some sort of indirect pressure from the EU to drop our objections in Russia's WTO bid. I hope this is not the case," Mr Gordadze stressed.

Despite a recent thaw from Brussels and Washington regarding Russia's WTO bid, Georgia is still flouting the spectre of a veto in the international trade organisation, unless Moscow changes its trade regime towards the two Georgian breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

A bypass procedure is possible within the WTO, but "nobody would like to get there and create a precedent of excluding one member's opinion. So far, all new members were accepted by consensus," Mr Gordadze said.

What Tbilisi wants to see from the Russian side, in order to give their green light to WTO membership, is "customs transparency" and the abolition of the three different trade regimes with Abkhazia, South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia.

Following the 2008 war, Moscow has recognised the independence of the two regions and has stationed thousands of troops and military equipment, despite an EU-brokered ceasefire agreement.

"They don't recognise our government, our borders, they don't want to negotiate because they feel quite comfortable with the de facto situation," the Georgian official said. Criticism formulated by the EU and US regarding the post-war situation is "flying past them" as it is not followed by any sanctions.

"We know sanctions are really difficult to impose, it's enough to look at the Iranian example. But it's just about putting it on the agenda all the time and qualifying these regions as occupied."

Economy beats social housing

Despite the Georgian government's self-portrayal as transparent and modern, Tblisis managed to embarrass itself when it decided, in August 2010, to evict all former refugees from Abkhazia, who had been squatting in state-owned buildings in the centre of Tbilisi.

The UN and human rights groups reacted immediately and the government subsequently placed a moratorium on further evictions until proper alternative housing was found for these internally displaced persons (IDPs).

In January however, the policy was restarted, with NGOs still criticising the lack of jobs, schooling and basic facilities such as heating in the small towns and villages where the IDPs are being transferred.

"They have been living in Tbilisi for 15 years and are now forced to go to remote regions, where they have no relatives, no jobs," Tamar Khidasheli from the Georgian Young Lawyers Association said at a briefing in Brussels earlier this month, noting that the situation of the roughly 30,000 "new IDPs" from the 2008 war is much better, as the government has built special houses for them.

The Georgian minister said the issue was indeed being raised during his talks with EU officials, but defended his government's policy.

"We are trying to do our best in this regard, but we also ask the EU to be more active in recognising the ethnic cleansing. People are forgetting what happened 15 years ago," he said, in reference to a one-year war in the 1990s when Abkhazia sought independence from Georgia, during which some 400,000 ethnic Georgians fled the region.

Some 50,000 of them found refuge in the country's capital, thousands even in central Tbilisi where there were government-owned hotels, even newspaper headquarters. A temporary solution in the beginning, these refugees ended up spending almost two decades as squatters.

"Now the economy of Tbilisi is changing, these buildings are sold to investors. But the new thing is that these people being evacuated are given property – of course it's not in the central part of Tbilisi, but they will be owners. The new residences are on the outskirts of Tbilisi or in other provinces," Mr Gordadze said.

EU rewards Georgia with 'deep' free trade talks

After having lifted its veto against Russia joining the World Trade Organisation following a Swiss-brokered deal, Georgia will start "deep" free trade negotiations with the EU in December.

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