Speeches & Statements

Remarks by the President of Georgia at Georgetown University

Thank all of you. It’s my belated but longstanding dream to find myself among these venerable halls. The truth of the matter is that the closest distance I ever came to the walls of Georgetown University was on a bike, when I would ride my bike from George Washington University, which I was attending and of course, we, all of the students at George Washington University, always thought that George Washington was better than Georgetown. Well, we always said it was better. What we thought deep of our hearts was a bit different matter. So I can say that I made it, at least for today. I came here prepared with a big speech but I don’t think I should read it. You have just woken up and I don’t want to put you back to sleep. I’ll try to speak my mind and forgive me if I say something extra. But anyway, here we  are.

Georgia is a small country. For some people it’s in the middle of nowhere. It was a hard time, when I was studying in the US back in 90’s. You always had to add that I’m from Georgia but not from the American Georgia, not from the US Georgia, but just Georgia. Then you had to do long geographical explanations. So today, Dean Lancaster had little trouble pronouncing my name but back in those days, it was completely unpronounceable.

It has been a major march that we have made in past 15 years; we’ve put ourselves on the world map. In our part of the world Georgia does matter. It is a significant historical place. It was one of the greatest old civilizations, several thousand years old. Just to give a couple of  examples; World medicine, you might not know, comes from the Georgian Queen Medea, who was queen of a civilization that was called the Kingdom of Kolkhi, which was competing with the ancient Greek civilization and wine comes from Georgia as well. They still make wine in a way that they used to make it back 5-6 thousand years ago. I have a small vineyard and make wine just like our ancestors did. But besides this of course, it is a very ancient civilization and it is also one of the first Christian states; we have officially been Christians since the 4th century, when the whole country and the King adopted Christianity. We have a separate alphabet - one of the 14 alphabets of the world. And we have a language which nobody else understands in the world, but that’s a handicap obviously, that sometimes can be an advantage. The point here is that Georgia was by that time, one of the most criminalized, one of the corrupted, and the classical definition of a failed state. It could have collapsed in the 90s. The government couldn’t supply the population with electricity 80% of the time, no roads were built. If you went to school, the schools were not heated, no electricity, kids would be dressed in gloves, hats, you know, whatever clothes they could get, freezing, teachers would be busy finding wood to warm it up somewhat, whatever heating devices they could obtain at school. The policemen and government officials were paid no salaries, policemen had to buy their position from the government, then they had to get their own cars, fill them with gas, go out and stand in the roads, they would get no salaries, they would have to extort money from citizens who passed them on the street and then they paid monthly dues to the government from which they bought their position. You can’t imagine what it was like. By the way, if you want to see this for yourself, go to Russia. It’s still like that there. You don’t have to travel back in time. Taxes were not collected. So I became President, we survived by the Rose Revolution, we were a young team. You know, the good news is that this team has stayed young, because I take care of the inflow of young people all the time. The bad news is that I don’t get younger, so I look older than my team, sometimes I looking forward to the time when I look obsolete.  However, I mean to say that at that time we were all young, I was nearly 36, at the moment when I got to the presidential office and there was this big group of young people, some in their 20s, mostly in their early 30s, they were full of idealism, they knew that they wanted to change something, they knew that the challenge was so huge that we didn’t know where to start but we really wanted to make it. Some British journalists at that time compared us to the newly released movie “Oceans Eleven”. We had to take huge risks and you know, the first thing we looked at was our big wallet, dangerous looking policemen, and we thought what can we do, change them? Not really, so what do we do with these people? We fired all of them. And in one day Georgia was without an entire police force. It was spring of 2004, suddenly there were no policemen in the streets, and there was no police number to call in case of whatever problem. So what happened? It was before the holiday season. The holiday season had started, we pledged to the people that in 3-4 months we would bring in a new police force, we started to recruit young people, but meanwhile there were no police. So what happened was that traffic accidents went down and even crime rates, crime incidents went down slightly. So we discovered that the police were part of the problem not part of the solution. I was wondering for some time whether we needed police at all. But then we brought in a new force and what happened as a result was that the old police force had a 5% confidence rate, the new one had 86%. It’s higher than any in Europe. Sometimes we compete with Finland or with Denmark. Crime rate used to be the highest in that zone.  Even today, 70% of the mafia bosses in Russia come from Georgia. While in Georgia the crime rate is almost 5 times less than in Russia. And according to a persistent new European Union studies, we are the safest country in Europe with lowest crime rate. We have been competing for the last 3 years with Iceland, which is obviously an island.    

But now we’ve made it, we are ahead of them without creating an ocean between us and the rest of the world, so that’s where we are, on the other hand, people don’t like to pay taxes, they don’t like to pay taxes anywhere. But in Georgia it was even worse, because you know, we were under another country, we hated that country – the Soviet Union, so we thought if you would cheat that country, that was the most noble cause you could do, cheat the country and then benefit your family. It was almost an ultimate fact of patriotism, but we needed to progress from there and to understand that this is now your own country. Now you have common good, you have common things to do, they were a hard things, especially when the government officials were so corrupt that people couldn’t see any benefits from paying taxes anyway.

When I came into the office, you can imagine government officials were not being paid, I got my first envelope after two weeks, my first pay check. Guess how much? – it was forty US dollars. I said what the hell is is that?! That’s all your Presidential salary. And I said what about the previous President, he didn’t look like he was starving. He wasn’t, but that was exactly what he was collecting, for all these years. So I understood and said no no, wait, I can’t live on that, but the treasury was empty. I thought to myself we’ll go to some international groups and we’ll ask them to give us some cash to pay for some tax collectors, government ministers, cabinet members, me as the President I wanted to get some more than this, some other people too and we’ll see. I was thinking, if we could increase tax collection by fourty percent  I would consider it a success. It doubled within three months, and look where we are now, we’ve decreased taxes by 60 percent and the tax collection went up overall almost twenty times. This is exactly the index of what had been stolen before - the index of shadow economy.

There were many other changes that we did, you know bureaucracy, we scrapped ninety percent of all the government agencies. People thought, you know, if they don’t pay taxes there will be mass fires in restaurants, rats will invade our cities, everything will go really bad, none of that has happened. What we have now is that the Canadian Centre of Law and Democracy’s studies, administered through another watchdog organization – Transparency International, 64 countries were studied; surveys on people and how they regard the government bureaucracy and guess what… they compare these kinds of comprehensive data. People said that we have the second most efficient bureaucracy in the world after New Zeeland, after having had the one of the worst. Then we have principle, there is also a lot of psychology, we build lots of new buildings and they are made with transparent glass, including police buildings and tax offices. In Georgia, to get passport you need a maximum of ten minutes, a driver license - maximum 20 minutes, to get a customs clearance for any goods, I’m not talking about a briefcase or a suitcase or a bag, I’m talking about a truck, it’s around ten minutes. You can go through a border gate by car without your passport. There’s an electronic chip in passports, included the ones you’re carrying, you just keep it in your pocket, like you would a ski pass you know for some gates. So those are the things that have changed. The World Bank puts Georgia as the easiest place in eastern and central Europe and the post Soviet world to do business with. Imagine that we have world’s fastest property registration, world’s fastest company registration, world’s fastest customs procedure, and this is all done at one window, in one building, in glass, with smiling people sitting there, you come in, they greet you and you go, even if you want to stay they won’t allow you to stay. Go and get your documents they say.

So that’s how it works. The country has really transformed, not only itself, but it has become the biggest hub of the region, it has become the biggest trading hub. You know they have now completed the biggest shopping mall in Europe in Georgia. Everybody in our region comes to Georgia to buy cars, it’s easy, it’s just takes few minutes and you don’t have to pay extra or anything, there are many other things for which people come to our country, we are now in the process of planning construction of new airports, a new railway, fast trains, highways in all directions, new cities, without having oil and gas, that’s a very important thing, you know, On the way here, I saw the photo of a good friend of mine, Emir of Qatar, well, Doha is beautiful city, some of our cities are starting to look like Doha, with small difference, there we have a little bit less gas, we don’t have any of it, almost. That’s what free enterprise can bring and again that takes us back to what brings me here to the United States. A few days ago I had a very good meeting with President Obama and he called Georgia, publicly, in front of television cameras the model for democracy reforms and economic success for the whole region. It’s very nice to hear from the President and not only from him; Secretary Clinton said the same thing. Yesterday, I went to the Senators and all of them are saying the same. Marco Rubio said that we are a role model for the whole region, Senator McCain said previously that he thought that he was Georgian, maybe he is, I don’t know. But the point here is that we went through everything, in 2005 Russia blocked all the energy supplies to Georgia. We were importing 80 percent of our electricity, gas for cooking and heating and for industrial purposes from Russia. We refurbished our energy sector and now we are exporting our energy to Russia. In 2006, they blocked all our export to Russia that means we lost 60 percent of our export market in one week. We grew double digit that year and since then we’ve been steadily growing with a twice bigger space than Russia, with all of the oil and gas that they have.

In 2008 they invaded us, President Medvedev clearly said “if we had not invaded Georgia, Georgia would have been in NATO.” such a valid reason to destroy your neighbor. They invaded us and the country bounced back. And that’s the point, from a Russian point of view, Georgia is the jewel of the empire, Georgia looks like Northern California, it has amazing beaches, very green hills, and beautiful high mountains with skiing, on the same day you can swim and ski most times of the year, very warm water, good food, good places and for Russians it was just ok. This nice place, these people are very entertaining, they are good singers, good dancers they have good food, they are nice people to be with but let the rest take care of itself. They don’t have to take bother with things like having their own country or having their own success story, but suddenly what’s happening? Everybody underestimated my people, they thought that corruption was cultural for my people; the study was released in World Bank. Ten years ago the ex-President of Georgia came exactly at this time to Washington. He was invited to the World Bank, he was lambasted for an hour for corruption and his assistance was cut off. Ten years later, I went there to present the only ever World Bank report made about defeating corruption in any member country state, and I got a standing applause on behalf of my country. They thought that in the past corruption was cultural they all underestimated my people. They thought that it’s very easy to manipulate our people into all kinds of electoral promises or all kinds of cheap things; at every election they underestimate my people. They thought that once they invade, the people will just surrender, go back to the proposed golden cage, as they were promising them, an illusionary one, they totally underestimate my people, my nation bounced back after that invasion dramatically. They thought that we would rather not bother ourselves with all these reforms, a tough and very difficult way and just go back to the old ways of doing things. I think they severely underestimated my people. Also, when I come to United States, it’s also a country that inspires me greatly, because I was a student here. When I come here now, you’ve seen all the articles: “America in decline,  America is over, America is this and that and you have a whole group of scholarly pundits with very smart faces saying, yes we were too arrogant, we shouldn’t do this and that, we should apologize to the world, we are really over. I think they are over, but America is not over. I think this because, when I came here I came on a congressional scholarship, it was hard enough for New-York.  I lived in a suburb of New York in Astoria Queens in a basement and I had to take a subway for one hour every day to Columbia University. I had hardly money for food and two years later I was living in a nice apartment at Central Park West, as you rightly said I was working for a top law firm , and the main thing that I had was the sense that everything was possible in this country, like it belongs to me, I can go all the way forward. A few days ago, I was at the Base Camp summit in California and I was thinking, there was a crowd of Koreans, Chinese, Middle Easterners, South Americans all kinds of different people, mostly newly arrived in the US 2, 3, 4 years ago and those who were here for these years, they are like Americans, they talk American,  their body language is American,  they speak English that sounds American and I suspect they already think like Americans. Well, I respect all the countries but go to Korea and become a Korean in two years, good luck with that. Out of question, right? That’s exactly what makes this country so special. This country always had pessimists, always had the 50/50s. If extraterrestrials had landed in Georgetown there would always be a political class that would say, let’s surrender, let’s not bother ourselves with useless resistance. They are not as bad as they look, they would always find themselves in a miserable minority.

Ultimately, America, from our perspective is a big force for the good of the world. From everywhere, from people in the Middle East revolutions to the streets of Moscow, where things are going to happen this year, as they will happen, I advice to watch, America is an inspiration to the people. As it has been an inspiration to my nation and to the people around my nation. You are incredibly lucky and I am incredibly privileged to be here and to talk to you. Thank you and I’ll take your questions.

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