Joint briefing held by President Saakashvili and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has praised his country's ties with Ukraine at a joint news conference in Tbilisi with counterpart Viktor Yushchenko. Speaking after the signing of a number of bilateral trade agreements, Saakashvili said that since taking office Georgia's trade with Ukraine had grown by "50 per cent a year". He also spoke about Georgia's progress in military reforms and said that Georgia's NATO aspirations were not directed against any "third party" or linked to Georgia's internal conflicts. Asked about the possible deployment of Ukrainian peacekeepers in Abkhazia, Yushchenko said that an international mandate would be required and both sides of the conflict would have to agree to it. Saakashvili added that he expected "changes for the better" in the conflict settlement process, but added that a "much bigger" international consensus was still needed. The following is an excerpt from the live broadcast of the news conference by Georgian Public Television Channel 1 on 1 March:

[Presenter] Mikheil Saakashvili and Viktor Yushchenko will sign a document on bilateral cooperation in a few minutes and a joint news conference will be held afterwards. The signing ceremony is about to begin and we are now going live to parliament.

[Correspondent] Mikheil Saakashvili and Viktor Yushchenko are signing a document on bilateral cooperation. The Ukrainian and Georgian governments are signing a document on the establishment and joint operation of international railway and ferry links between the ports of Poti, Batumi and Kerch. The governments of the two countries are also signing an agreement on cooperation in the field of entrepreneurship, legal protection of the geographic names of wines, spirits, and mineral waters and standardization. An agreement on cooperation between the justice ministries of the two countries is also to be signed.

To remind you, the official ceremony of Viktor Yushchenko's reception in parliament ended an hour ago. The Georgian state orchestra performed the Georgian and Ukrainian national anthems during the ceremony. The presidents introduced members of their governments and parliaments to each other.

[Announcer, begins in mid sentence] - Mr Konstantin Vashchenko, first deputy chairman of the state committee on regulatory policy and entrepreneurship.

A memorandum of mutual understanding in the labour and social welfare sphere between the Georgian Ministry of Labour, Health and Social Protection and the Ukrainian Ministry of Labour and Social Policy is being signed. Signing it from the Georgian side is Mr Irakli Giorgobiani, Georgian deputy minister of labour, health and social protection. Signing it from the Ukrainian side is Mr Mykola Spys, extraordinary and plenipotentiary ambassador of Ukraine to Georgia.

Praise for Georgia-Ukraine ties

[Saakashvili] I would like to welcome our guests, the Ukrainian president and his delegation. We do not need to explain now that Ukraine is Georgia's close friend and ally. However, I would like us to think as to how far Georgian-Ukrainian relations have progressed over the last few years. Since 2004, the annual growth of trade has been 50 per cent. We do not have the latest figures but, according to the data that we have, it nearly doubled last year.

At the same time - [changes tack]. Trade has nearly doubled. It means that there are far greater opportunities for enterprises in both countries in order to produce more, to sell more, to travel more and to receive greater profits. According to our data, the export of wine to Ukraine increased two and a half to three times last year. This is a very significant step forward though I believe that there are far greater opportunities on the Ukrainian market and we have given our agriculture minister a strict order to make the standards of the wines exported to the Ukrainian market as stringent as possible. The quality of those wines has improved significantly of late but we need greater control and greater strictness in order to rule out any kind of misunderstandings. Today's agreement should contribute to this.

Every other aspect of the cooperation is working well. Overall, a free trade regime is effectively in place between our countries. There are technical issues that need to be resolved but the trade and economic relations between Ukraine and Georgia are among the most successful examples of a free trade regime. I will not say anything about humanitarian aspects now.

When I became Georgian president, there was just one flight to Kiev a week and it used to be half empty. Today, there are daily flights, if I am not mistaken. And sometimes there are eight flights a day. I am planning to ensure that, by the end of my first presidential term, there are as many flights between Kiev and Tbilisi as there were during my student years in Kiev in Soviet times, on hot summer days. There were two flights a day. It means that our relations will be restored to the full scale in the end.

In reality, this is the atmosphere that has been created by the two countries. People visit each other because they find it easier to do so. They find it easier to keep in touch with each other. I have not counted how many new Ukrainian-Georgian families were created recently. Naturally, unmarried citizens should be one of Ukraine's primary exports to Georgia. However, everything else - [changes tack]. We have created all the necessary conditions for this. There are flights. The quality of Georgian wine is improving and the quantity is increasing. Everything else is in its place - the beaches, the mountains. I will not go on mentioning all the places in Georgia now.

So, we welcome these relations in every possible way. Just the way - [changes tack]. A statue of [19th century Ukrainian poet] Taras Shevchenko will be unveiled in Tbilisi tomorrow. In May We are planning to unveil a statue of [medieval Georgian poet] Shota Rustaveli in central Kiev, in a most significant and strategically important location. These relations are not limited to central cities. Regions are involved too and there are several sister regions. There is friendship between different representatives of the political spectrum. We have no ill-wishers in Ukraine. We only have friends there at every level of the political and public establishment and in every sphere of political and public affairs.

[Passage omitted: Yushchenko speaks in Ukrainian with Georgian simultaneous Georgian translation superimposed. He talks about "close ties" between the two countries, trade, and cooperation on joint foreign policy aims. Yushchenko is then asked about Ukraine's NATO aspirations, implications for relations with Russia, and whether his visit to Georgia's Museum of Occupation will increase his "anti-Russian image".]

Georgia's NATO ambitions not directed against "third party" - Saakashvili

[Saakashvili] I would like to completely agree with my friend on this difficult issue. I would like to speak about how this refers to Georgia's integration with the North Atlantic alliance. I have just come back from Brussels but just before that there was a NATO monitoring mission in Tbilisi and we have preliminary information about the conclusions they may present about military reforms in Georgia.

This preliminary information says that this was a much more positive inspection than many of the previous ones, with much more positive conclusions on the more difficult stages of reform and these conclusions were difficult to achieve. I would like to say that technically, in the next few months Georgia will be completely ready for the next stage of NATO integration [the Membership Action Plan]. Of course, that will be a political decision. The fact that we are ready can itself be seen as the result of certain political activity both outside and inside Georgia. This is an irrefutable sign that we are speaking about very specific dates and periods, very specific prospects, but I do not intend to specify those dates because that is not our function, it is a bilateral process. When the time comes the North Atlantic alliance will specify that itself.

I would like to underline especially that no country has a right of veto on the future development of relations between Georgia and NATO and I think no-one should have those kinds of pretensions.

Our integration with NATO is not directed against any third party. I would also like to return to the theme that there is often speculation about what links there may be between NATO and internal conflicts [in Abkhazia and South Ossetia]. I would like to say that NATO has no specific link to internal conflicts and nor should it have. NATO is linked to Georgia's integration and Georgia's future democratization and strength. I think everyone understands that perfectly well. All our friends understand that, as do Georgia's patriots and other more or less conscientious and independent elements within Georgia and also maybe outside Georgia.

Georgia-EU ties

As for the future integration of Georgia and Ukraine with European structures in general, I also met the leadership of the European Union in Brussels. We spoke about a new dimension of integration. We have the Neighbourhood Policy, but we are speaking about the European dimension of the Neighbourhood Policy, which means that in about a year's time, or possibly much earlier, we will should move to a system in which Georgian citizens, specifically Georgian students, business people and people from other sectors, such as academics and tourists too, will have simplified procedures for receiving European visas. You know that at the moment there are long queues outside embassies. Turkey removed visa requirements for Georgian citizens and that is a major achievement. And we should have a very simple visa regime with Europe. That will require a lot of work so that it will not be difficult for Georgian citizens to travel to all these large European countries. However, we are already at a stage where this is taking shape. That is one thing.

Second, we are working with the European Union on a free trade agreement and I believe that we will need a few months for that, but we will certainly have a free trade agreement within a set period of time. I repeat that I plan to achieve that in my first presidential term [i.e. by the end of 2008].

Tbilisi museum about Soviet, not Russian, occupation - Saakashvili

The markets of some countries are closed to us, but we will open new ones in Europe, as we have in Ukraine and several other countries. That is very important for every Georgian family and every worker in Georgia.

As for the Museum of Occupation, that is a museum of the Soviet occupation. For me this is a personal issue. Just as there was a famous famine in Ukraine, Golodomor, which was recognized by the Georgian parliament, and in which millions of Ukrainians fell victim to the most incompetent decision on collectivization in the history of the world, the incompetent economic decision, so in Georgia were several hundreds of thousands of people wiped out in Soviet gulags. Georgia lost some of the best members of its society. For me this is a personal issue because in the museum there are documents relating to the imprisonment and execution of my family, as there are for tens and hundreds of thousands of our citizens. I would like to underline that this is a museum of the Soviet occupation, not of a Russian occupation of Georgia. I truly believe that this was a Soviet occupation. I would like to underline that Bolshevik Russia's 11th Army included ethnic Georgians. [Passage omitted]

I would like us to never return to that epoch. I have never thought that something good can be drawn from the actions of the figures of that time who denied their own origins, the interests of their country and put into action the most inhuman ideas in the history of humanity. Therefore this is a museum about our country's history to ensure that it never happens again. It is not directed against anyone. If someone, somewhere, at some level, takes this personally, that is their problem and not ours. We are well-disposed towards everyone. I believe that truly applies to all of Georgia's neighbours.

Need for "bigger consensus" on Abkhazia, mandate for Ukrainian involvement

[Question] Natia Gogsadze, Rustavi-2 TV. I will continue with the topic of the conflicts. There was active discussion on this topic in Brussels. Javier Solana said that the EU would take a more active role and participate in the settlement of the conflicts in various formats. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian president has on numerous occasions stated that Ukraine is ready to replace the [Russian] peacekeepers [in Abkhazia and South Ossetia]. I would like to ask the president of Ukraine whether there have been any concrete discussions with international organizations about whether or not Ukraine will receive a mandate. Likewise, did you discuss this issue at today's bilateral meeting?

[Yushchenko, in Ukrainian with superimposed simultaneous Georgian translation] There are two frozen conflicts on Georgian territory and I am convinced that both for the Georgian president and myself and for many other leaders in the country it is a very serious question as to when it will all happen, when the conflicts will be resolved. Will it happen with our involvement and should we expect that or will it be resolved by a new generation of politicians?

We are talking about an active effort to resolve these kinds of problematic issues. We are saying that this is an important issue on our agenda today. I might be asked as to what Ukraine's mission will be like. Our actions are based on the fact that the Georgian government and the Georgian president have presented quite a clear plan for the resolution of these conflicts. This plan implies resumption of a dialogue. I am also convinced that no one can do it better than the two parties to the conflict. There is no need for the involvement of a fifth or a sixth party in the dialogue. This dialogue should be stepped up under the patronage of OSCE and the United Nations as soon as possible.

There is another issue that is linked to this issue. The presence of a military contingent always complicates the resolution and it is very difficult to speak of the rule of law so long as there is someone there. Laws are silent in the time war.

The third crucial and problematic issue is the fact that there are displaced persons and we should talk about their return. We should talk about a dignified return of the displaced persons. I am not speaking about the events that might take place on their own. However, these are basic and significant steps and it is beyond doubt that the international community can play an important role in the resolution of this matter. So, Ukraine's stance and initiative are very simple - we are ready to act side by side with you with the mandate, the mission, and the responsibilities that will be acceptable to and accepted by both sides. Naturally, we are talking about a relevant international mandate. And I understand that a dialogue is under way on this.

[Saakashvili] I want to emphasize and repeat what I said two days ago in Brussels. We are talking here about one of the most successful ethnic cleansing campaigns of the twentieth century, which, unfortunately for us, was perpetrated on Georgian territory. Some 300,000 ethnic Georgians were expelled from their homes, but let us not forget that nearly 500,000 Georgian citizens were expelled from Abkhazia. Nearly 500,000. They were ethnic Georgians, ethnic Jews, ethnic Russians, ethnic Armenians and ethnic Ukrainians.

We also must never forget the heroism displayed by Ukrainian pilots, who, under fire, rescued tens of thousands of our citizens of both Ukrainian and Georgian origin in an operation that lasted for many days at a time when Sukhumi was in flames.

Anyone who entertains the illusion that this may sometime or somewhere be legalized is, in my opinion, not of sound mind. Much as cannibalism cannot be legalized, this can never be legalized and no-one will be able to take advantage of it. No-one will ever be able to take advantage of the homes and property of people who were expelled; no-one will be able to benefit from this situation in which completely artificial borders keep people from interacting with each other. No-one will see any benefit from this situation in which a country, in this case our country, is dismembered and broken into pieces.

This can never happen under any circumstances. Two or three days ago we heard for the first time that the European Union was ready to take part in a peacekeeping operation. When we are speaking about a peacekeeping operation, we are not speaking about a mechanical separation of the sides. There is no need for that. We need not to divide the sides, but rather we must bring the sides together. We need these people to interact with each other, travel freely, see their property, visit their neighbours, re-establish contacts with their relatives and visit the graves of their family members. We do not need a new dividing line. When we are speaking about the role of the European Union, we are speaking about a soft, humanistic approach which includes security -after all a person spending the night in their home for the first time in 15 years must not be left vulnerable to invasion and murder.

For this it will be necessary have the UNHCR there and to deploy an international police force nearby that will protect the people and ensure their security. This is what we mean when we speak about a new stage of the peacekeeping operation -not new dividing lines. I believe any person of good will should agree to this.

Let no-one entertain the illusion that by dragging out the situation that they will be able to maintain the situation as it is. They cannot maintain it as it is -we must state this very openly. Georgia has a very concrete, very peaceful strategy and set of plans and objectives in relation to these conflicts.

This is one of the most important things necessary for Georgia to be established as a state once and for all. Therefore we have always welcomed Ukraine's participation and I am grateful that this desire has been confirmed once again. In general the number of countries wishing to participate is growing constantly. I think that we will bear witness to many more changes for the better, but let me repeat once again that we need a certain amount of patience, we need to do a lot more work and we need to achieve a consensus much bigger than the one we have today.

[Passage omitted: Yushchenko discusses domestic politics in Ukraine]

Translated by BBC Monitoring

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