Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's news conference at Tbilisi City Hall on 23 February

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has welcomed improvements in Georgian-Russian relations and praised his counterpart Vladimir Putin as an "historic figure". Speaking at a news conference with local and foreign journalists, he said that the Georgian patriarch's visit to Moscow and a forthcoming meeting of chambers of commerce from the two countries could further improve ties. He also welcomed the fact that the Russian media had "toned down their rhetoric". Saakashvili also spoke about domestic issues and separatist conflicts, stressing that Georgia had no desire to use force to resolve them. The following is an excerpt from the hour-long section of the news conference broadcast live by Georgian Public Television Channel 1 on 23 February:

[Presenter] We now go live to the Tbilisi mayor's office where [President Mikheil Saakashvili] is meeting representatives of the media.

Plans for customs service reform

[Saakashvili] I would first of all like to welcome you all. We have journalists here from a whole range of regional TV stations and newspapers. We also have some foreign journalists.

[Passage omitted: Saakashvili begins by speaking about his decision on 21 February to abolish the National Transport Regulatory Commission and sack customs chief Zurab Antelidze. He says that Antelidze was an "honest" person, but the inefficient customs service was hampering small business and Antelidze "had been warned".]

I have given the government six months to work day and night to bring in computers, change the system, build new buildings - we have money for that - and hire new people so that within a few months - the deadline is 1 September - we should have a completely new customs and tax system in Georgia. We already have good laws. We have low taxes and I do not rule out that we will continue to reduce them. The main thing is for all of this to be properly implemented. This means not just in these areas but in all areas of government.

[Passage omitted: Saakashvili goes on to speak about the need to reduce state interference and says that taxpayers should feel they are getting value for money from state services. He then speaks in more detail about his decision to abolish the National Transport Regulatory Commission.]

Prime minister has Saakashvili's "full support"

[Question] Nino Mamaladze, Imedi TV. You spoke in detail about what reforms have been carried out and what is planned for the customs system, the new revenues department and the instructions you have given to the government. What other plans are there and how satisfied are you with the government itself and its leader [Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli]?

[Saakashvili] I would like to say first of all that Noghaideli has my full support and trust. Anyone can see that and it is not possible to ignore what we have achieved in recent years.

In January and February this year we have had record tax revenues in our history of tax collection. In these two months we have collected more than we did in a whole year three years ago, and much more effectively, and this despite the fact that we have lower taxes.

Look at all the infrastructure projects in Georgia. Just take roads, for example. People say what time have we got for roads, look at all our other difficulties. The way out of these difficulties is all of this - roads, railways, electricity, new hydropower stations, new industry, investment, hotels and so on.

[Passage omitted: Continues to speak about road building, including a plan for motorway from eastern Georgia though the outskirts of Tbilisi which will connect to the new motorway being built from Tbilisi to western Georgia.]

Returning to your question, the government has my confidence. You will have noticed that there have been far fewer reshuffles recently than there were before. In the first year or two there was a little experimentation, there were a few mistakes and lessons were learnt. Is anyone's job protected? Of course not. We have a simple principle in the cabinet. If they do their job, they stay, if not, they go. That is how it is and how it always will be if we want to be effective. We have replaced important people on that basis and it will stay that way. Today, however, I really am optimistic and think that the government in its current form is capable of carrying out our main tasks.

[Passage omitted: Speaks about changes and reforms in Ajaria, and changes to the system of government throughout the country. He is then asked a question by a regional journalist about plans for a free trade zone in Poti. He says talks are still under way on the final plans but he says he hopes it will become a "staging post" on the Black Sea as industry "moves East" from Europe. He then says that Russia's embargo on Georgia has stimulated diversification of its economy and export markets. Another regional journalist asks about development plans for Borjomi. Saakashvili says that the tourist industry is developing and a new road through Samtskhe-Javakheti, as well as improvements to the railway, will improve the regional economy in the next few years.]

Judicial reforms

[Question] Could you please talk about reforms and the judicial system in particular? No-one is denying that there are problems there. We know that changes are taking place there too and juries will be introduced next year if not earlier. Yet, what should be done in order to build confidence in the judicial system which, unfortunately, does not exist or is low today?

[Saakashvili] Thank you for this question. First of all, I believe that, while trust in the judicial system is not as high as trust in other institutions like the police, the prosecutor's office, and other bodies, it has increased significantly. It has increased, first and foremost, because of the reduction of corruption in the judiciary.

However, it has come at a price. If I am not mistaken, about 40 judges have been arrested and 20 or 25 of them were detained having been caught on camera accepting a bribe. They did it in front of cameras. This has proved effective. There has been much talk about this being interference with the independence of judges. If the independence of a judge means the freedom to accept a bribe, I cannot put up with that and it will not happen during my term in office. Anyone can interpret this statement the way he or she wants. If a judge's independence means the formation of a truly authoritative judiciary which will be independent from every other branch of power but will be fully dependent on the law, we will do everything to achieve that.

I know a number of countries where there are fewer complaints regarding the lack of independence of judges but a real sale by auction takes place during every court case. There, an honest judge is the judge who, having accepting a bribe once, will not sell the verdict to someone who is ready to pay even more. I do not want Georgia to become that kind of a country.

Secondly, you know that we have reduced the president's influence over the Council of Justice. The president no longer appoints judges. I believe that we have reached the stage when the president should no longer supervise the judiciary. As you have rightly noted, the introduction of juries means that part of the responsibility will be transferred to the public. I also do not rule out the possibility that we will bring European judges. We have actually addressed the EU on this and we hope that a relevant decision will be made. We want to bring effective European judges who will deal with business-related cases together with our judges, so that there is trust and we can adopt the standards that exist in European countries with a long-standing tradition of judicial system. [Passage omitted]

Georgia-Azerbaijan border talks

[Question] Sagarejo TV, Natia Sukhiashvili. Mr President, the part of the Georgian-Azerbaijani border which is adjacent to Davit-Gareji [monastery] is a matter of dispute between the two countries. There is a danger of losing cultural monuments. What is the state doing in this respect? Is there a chance of resolving this problem in the near future?

[Saakashvili] Thank you. First of all, I would like to say that it is not right to speak of a dispute. We are holding consultations on this topic. There is no dispute. There are consultations. If there is any state that we have brotherly relations with, it is, first and foremost, Azerbaijan though, naturally, without any exaggeration, we have the same kind of relations with Armenia. Our relations with Turkey and other countries of the region are becoming increasingly good too.

There is an administrative border there that dates back to Soviet times. It does pass through the Gareji monastery because that it how the Soviet Union arranged it. This has caused a legal problem. In Soviet times, this monastery was, indeed, divided between the two Soviet republics. Therefore, we are holding consultations about it and we will hopefully be able to find a solution. [Passage omitted: Government to spend more on protecting historical monuments throughout Georgia.]

Relations with Russia

[Question, in English] [Name indistinct], Russia Today. Mr President, first of all, speaking of the Russia subject, the ambassador is back and, obviously, a big deal has been made of his return. What is the plan? What is the next plan about it? [Russian] visas are still not being issued [to Georgian citizens] and there are still no direct flights [between Georgia and Russia]. I would also like to ask another question. You have spoken about the abolition of the transport regulatory commission, the one that was conducting the talks about resumption of direct flights. So, who is going to do that now? Who is going to carry on with the talks with Russia over direct flights?

[Saakashvili] I would like to say that we welcome it. Excuse me, I will reply in Georgian as I am sure that you have very good translators. I have been asked what steps Georgia will take in response to the return of the Russian ambassador. It was not us who recalled our ambassador. I can recall him and send him back again if that would be considered a reciprocal step. We have not imposed an embargo. I can say with full responsibility that we are not planning to impose an economic embargo and sanctions on Russia. Everyone understands that this embargo has been unproductive. I believe that its introduction was a defeat for both countries and its abolition will be a victory for both countries. It will be the right step.

However, it would not be true to say that it should be linked to some political conditions. Georgia has its own political course and it will not abandon that course. Our main course is that we should not give up our course. It is our main principle that we should not act against our principles. Our principles include independence, freedom, and good-neighbourly relations with every country, as well as the freedom of choice. The Georgian people have proved that. The winegrowers from Kakheti proved it the last year. Every citizen of our country has proved it. Employees of our energy sector have proved it. Our law enforcement system has proved it. They all have proved that Georgia is strong enough and it is impossible to destabilize it through some kind of unilateral steps.

I believe that it is not in Russia's interests either. We are strongly interested in having good-neighbourly and principled relations with Russia. It is a two-way street, or even a four way one if you want to put it that way. I think that there is every opportunity to open it now. I would also like to say that, naturally, we welcome everything that makes these relations easier. I know that, in the nearest future, his holiness the patriarch of Georgia will go to Moscow on a mission of good will and I will support this in every way I can. In a similar fashion, we have recently awarded a famous Russian actor a medal of honour. I believe that there are a lot of Russians who have demonstrated amazing dignity. Those channels should reopen and those contacts should be restored. We will hold a meeting of trade chambers in Tbilisi in a month and a half from now, if I am not mistaken, and the head of the Russian trade chamber is expected to attend it. The same thing should be happening at every other level.

We do not have a problem in that respect. However, on the other hand, it would not be true if I said that I am thinking and dreaming about it night and day. I am thinking about making my country strong and ensuring that it moves forward. We will achieve that regardless of the existing obstacles. On the other hand, naturally, we want it all to be decided in such a manner that we would be able to resolve all the problems with Russia. In reality, we have no fundamental differences with Russia. We really do not. There are some officials there who have said that Abkhazia has never been part of Georgia. Do you know the name of the place where they want to hold the Olympic Games? It is called the Imereti plain [Imereti is the name of a province in western Georgia]. It is where Sochi is. If Abkhazia was never part of Georgia, did the Georgians simply jump over it and arrive in Sochi on Russian territory? Incidentally, there are still Georgians resident there. Therefore, incorrect information used to be supplied and it was not processed correctly either.

I believe that there has been much misunderstanding and there have been many unpleasant circumstances that should be removed. I strongly welcome the fact that the rhetoric in the Russian media and in bilateral relations has been reduced, which is a good trend. We also welcome the fact that there is now an interest, at least at the verbal level, in removing the obstacles in a number of areas. It is a good trend too. Humanitarian channels have opened and we have more contact. To be honest, while one may not agree with everything, we had a good exchange of opinion with the Russian ambassador.

I remember that we never had sturdy chairs in the city council. They never lasted long. This shows that the local self-government is not sufficiently strong yet.

So, there are positive signs and we welcome these signs. The rest is simply not up to us to decide.

Slams opposition criticism of NATO bid

[Question] Mr President, you have mentioned the prospects for Georgia's accession to the North Atlantic alliance. It has been discussed more actively at a high level recently. The NATO secretary-general has also said that a date has been set for the expansion when Ukraine and Georgia will probably join the alliance. An increasing number of opposition parties are saying that the Georgian government will have to give up the Tskhinvali region [South Ossetia] and Abkhazia if we join the alliance. In your opinion, what is this campaign linked to?

[Saakashvili] What do you think this campaign is linked to?

[Journalist] Russia, naturally.

[Saakashvili] Why should I be the one answering this question? They will feel offended by me again. [Laughs] Unfortunately, many of our compatriots have not learnt their lesson. It is one thing that they have no conscience but they have also been unable to learn their lesson. One could be conscienceless but smart. When some is conscienceless and also very stupid and very untalented, it is a very bad combination. This is all I can say about that rubbish.

South Ossetia, Abkhazia

[Question] [Name indistinct] from RTR TV. You said that you do not think day and night about all this [Georgian-Russian relations].

[Saakashvili] No I don't.

[Question] But I am certain that you do think day and night about the reunification of Georgia. Today there was an incident in [Abkhazia's] Gali District in which members of the league of Georgian patriots said they burnt down houses. In your view, do such actions, and not just actions but also aggressive statements, such as [former Defence Minister Irakli] Okruashvili's statement that he would celebrate this New Year in Tskhinvali -

[Saakashvili, interrupting] By the way, I don't know where he celebrated the New Year. Maybe he really did celebrate it there [laughs]. Ask him yourself. It cannot be completely ruled out that he celebrated it there.

[Question] In your view, how do such actions and aggressive statements affect the conflict settlement process?

[Saakashvili] I think the following. First, the use of force is unacceptable to Georgia, because any force or chaos undermines our main foundation, the fact that we are developing very well and that we are becoming an amazing country. You remember two years ago those people who wanted to write about poor Georgia, its dilapidated roads, dark streets, hungry-eyed children, freezing schools - now they are not saying that, are they? And soon in two or three years - [changes tack] We have a major unemployment problem but I guarantee you that in two or three years unemployment will no longer be a problem. Of course there will still be many problems. But the more progress there is the fewer problems there will be. However, the country will be in very good shape, not just for the region but internationally. [Passage omitted]

Therefore, we don't need this problem to be resolved by force. We need peace and good relations with everyone, including of course the country you represent, Russia. Of course we want good relations with them and we want peace on our territory. Who does not want peace on our territory? Those people who do not want Georgia to become a new Singapore or Dubai in a Georgian setting. When I speak about Singapore and Dubai I do not mean we should change our views or way of life. I mean that we should be as wealthy and have an economy as free as theirs. However, we will remain who we are, something we are proud of and which is the most important thing, our uniqueness and our national values.

In those conditions, of course all these problems - [changes tack] For example, 7,000 people live in Tskhinvali [main town in South Ossetia]. When all these skyscrapers are built in Tbilisi in two years' time - some next year and some in two years' time, three years at the most - when Tskhinvali is only 40-45 minutes from Tbilisi on the new motorway, and when Tskhinvali remains as it is today, what do you think these 7,000 people will do? Will they sit looking at each other and then go their checkpoints, guns and crowbars in hand or will they come to Tbilisi and work here.

Moreover, I will you tell that when we open a disco in Tamarasheni [Georgian-controlled village in South Ossetia close to Tskhinvali] in a month and half's time and a cinema with Dolby surround sound and a sports hall, where will the young people of Tskhinvali be going in the evening? Will they spend their time shooting in the direction of the disco or will they leave their guns at home and go to dance at the disco with their fellow countrymen? I know that now that I have said this certain people will now emerge and spend lots of money trying to build a good disco in Tskhinvali. I would only welcome that because then we will have two discos, one in Tskhinvali and one in Tamarasheni. [Passage omitted]

There is always a way out of every situation. I believe the solution is not force, because every act of force remains forever in history. People have a natural desire for good lives.

There is a TV station called Alania which I usually watch in the evenings. It is watched by 95 per cent of Tskhinvali residents, we know that from all kind of surveys. The most popular programme is a music show called Masha and Gosha. They show music videos in the evening and they have a phone in. I heard one person call from Tskhinvali and the presenter said to the lad: Hey, how are you, Beslan, I think he was called, and asked him what he did in the evening, whether he went to cafes or discos. No, we don't have cafes or discos in Tskhinvali, the lad said. Well, do you go to the supermarkets? No, we don't have supermarkets he said. So what do you do, he said. We drive around in my uncle's 21 [old Soviet car] around in the evening. I am telling you all of this because they have brought in special jamming equipment and have tried to jam Alania, particularly this Masha and Gosha show, which by the way also shows Russian songs. That is the absurdity of the situation. If that little midget government there is afraid of Masha and Gosha, it means they really are not going to have a great future and so I am very calm about this, but returning to the question I don't know who celebrated the New Year where.

[Question] Maka Antidze, Reuters. Batono Mikheil, you have been president for three years now.

[Saakashvili] And a bit more.

[Question] Three years and one or two months. What would you say your greatest achievement has been, and what were your biggest mistakes or failures?

[Saakashvili] I see the time for philosophical questions has come. I think our greatest achievement - in addition to the fact that the restoration of Georgia's territorial integrity has begun with Ajaria and its successful development - is that a sense of statehood has returned to Georgia and the Georgian people.

[Passage omitted: Saakashvili says his government has overcome scepticism and kept its promises. He lists "achievements" such as roads, improvements to electricity supplies, schools and hospitals, an increase in defence capability and other reforms. He does not mention "mistakes" or "failures". Then, in response to a question from a Turkish news agency on cooperation between the two countries, he tells an anecdote about a meeting with Turkish businessmen when he took office and another during his most recent visit to Istanbul. He says that the businessmen praised the changes in Georgia's business climate over the past three years. He also notes that there are "many ethnic Georgians" living in Turkey who hold government jobs. The next question from a Georgian journalist was about the community of ethnic Georgians living in Iran, known in Georgian as the Pereidnelebi. Saakashvili said that the number of Georgians from overseas applying for dual citizenship and returning to the country was increasing. He added that immigration now exceeded emigration.]

Praises Putin, backs Sochi Winter Olympics bid

[Question] Mr President, how do you explain the fact that a few months after a financial specialist from the taxation sector was appointed defence minister in Georgia, the same thing happened in Russia? A tax official was appointed defence minister there, too. How frequent is you contact with the Russian president, Mr Putin? Vladimir Putin said at his last news conference that when you met at the CIS summit in Minsk, it played a positive role.

[Saakashvili] Yes, I would like to say that we had a very pleasant conversation with President Putin in Minsk. Pleasant not because we agreed on everything but I find it very easy to talk to him. I believe that for Russia he is a very important figure of truly historic significance. Russia today is completely different to what it was a few years ago in many ways. I believe that we have not made full use of this potential in recent years. A lot of things could have been done better.

There are lots of similarities between what is happening here and in Russia. Russia is implementing national programmes and so are we. I am delighted that Russia is building children's sport fields and hospitals like we are. So there really are secret, mystical links between our two nations. That is a joke, but on the other hand we really do want to be dealing with a developing, successful Russia.

For example, I really want Russia to win the [2014 Winter] Olympics for Sochi. I support that with my whole heart because I believe the Olympics would facilitate peaceful development and mutual understanding in Transcaucasia, which has traditionally been a zone of instability. It will facilitate peaceful trends and the improvement of people's lives. It is difficult to talk about long-term peace without that. I know that the Olympic delegation is currently there studying the situation and if I had a vote I would be delighted to support Sochi. Bakuriani did not get through - if they refused Sochi and returned to Bakuriani I would be even happier - but if Bakuriani is out then for me the best would be Sochi because I think it would be a good stimulus for regional cooperation.

Translated by BBC Monitoring

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