Despite it being the second biggest Parliament in the world, it’s still rare enough to find a member of the European Parliament who is knowledgeable about Georgia. Even rarer are those who boast a sound and thorough knowledge of the whole South Caucasus, so when you get an opportunity to interview one of those, you take it with both hands. This was the case with MEP Gunnar Hokmark, whom GEORGIA TODAY interviewed for our “Messages From Brussels” Series.
My first question would not be about Georgia but about its neighboring country Armenia, which has undergone a huge change in recent weeks. What would be your take on what happened in Armenia and how all of these can influence the region in general?
I hope that It will contribute to a more transparent and more open Armenian society. I hope that this is a step in the right direction regarding stabilizing democracy and Armenian independence.
One of the more crucial and inquisitive questions the Georgian audience has is whether Armenia will manage to get out of the Russian shadow under the new leadership.
No one knows that and I don’t think that even the new leadership in Armenia really knows what it can and cannot do, but what is important is that the European society and the international community needs to be very clear that no one has the right to interfere in Armenian society and Armenian sovereignty. I think it’s very important to be very clear about that as soon as possible, because I guess there are some temptations for Moscow to intervene in one way or another. The best thing for Armenia could also be to phase out the military presence of Russian troops in Armenia.
I think lots of Armenian opinion-makers would disagree with that, considering the fact Russian bases tie into the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict. How do you envisage solving the conflict if there are no Russian forces in there because they basically serve as a guarantee of a prolonged stalemate for Armenia?
I think that this has been true in recent history but I don’t think it is the reality today. Obviously, the Armenian authorities would be better judges of that but I think the main threat for Armenia as a country is the lack of independence versus Russia which we have seen because Armenia could have come much closer to the European Union, into Europe, without this agreement with Moscow regarding the Eurasian economy, for example.
Would you say there’s a zero-sum game going on in the Caucasus and that Russia has more pulling power than the EU?
Societies and history are never about zero-sum; it’s always about stabilizing democratic institutions and the rule of law. Then you will always have a win-win situation because you are creating more stability, more security but also more freedom. So Armenia only stands to gain by creating and establishing more independence.
So what do Europe and the EU in general expect of the new leadership?
A firm rule of law, a fight against corruption, an open economy, securing more free trade from Armenia to Europe, opening the country up for all the agreements we have prepared and being an active partner in the Eastern partnership. A lot of things can be done, as we have seen in Georgia and in other countries coming closer regarding the visa regime and other things.
If that really happens and Armenia sets out on a steady path to becoming more integrated with Europe and this is followed by a response from Russia, what will the EU do?
I think we need to in some way to differ between Putin’s response and the Russian response because, well, even if it’s the same today, it’s clear that for Russia it’ll be beneficial to have a stable and prosperous Armenia as a neighbor.
But that kind of Russia exists only in theory.
I agree with you but you know it is important to clarify that while we are very firm against Putin’s regime, at the same time we are very open to Russia as a society and country. The problem with Russia is not Russia as a country, it is the leadership and that is why I say that it is a problem for Putin if Armenia becomes more European. For Russia it would be only a good thing to have a strong economy emerging in Armenia and linking Russia more to Europe.
Let me rephrase my question then. If Putin decides it’s not a good thing for Armenia to get closer to Europe and puts in some punitive measures, what will the EU do? What would your response be?
We have already sanctions concerning Ukraine and we know that this has influenced Putin and that’s why I said we need to be clear that there should be no interference from Moscow and from Putin.
Let’s move on to Georgian affairs. I think quite fairly that the biggest political issue of the recent weeks was the messianic return of the former prime minister and I remember your open letter, addressed to him, which was quite critical, hinting that there were questions about the rule of law and so on. How would you assess his return now?
I think it’s a bad thing for him to come back because there’s a hidden agenda and lack of transparency. I think Georgia needs to do better than to have an oligarch that sometimes is in the shadows or sometimes on the scene. We saw during the discussions about the new constitution and the constitutional changes that you can have successful cooperation in Parliament between parliamentary groups. I think it’s the only way forward for Georgia – to have political development based upon the parliamentary situation, instead of someone popping in and out from the hidden obscurities.
You say it’s bad that he is coming back. Is it better or worse than what you and your colleagues claimed – that there was a shadow government that was pulling the strings behind the scenes; is that the positive change in that now he is doing it openly or is that even worse?
It’s the same thing because he’s entering suddenly from the shadows not based upon any parliamentary election or on a real political change. He’s exercising some sort of personal power and in a democracy you don’t have one person entering with personal power using financial strength in order to intervene in the political landscape.
If you took him out of the equation, what kind of political landscape do you think we’d have in Georgia?
Well, judging from my own experience, having met with parliamentarians from all political groups, there’s eagerness for responsibility in Georgia. I also think that the contaminated scenes we have seen in the past can be gotten rid of by focusing the parliamentary work on cooperation, as we saw regarding the constitutional changes.
You don’t mean the whole new generation of politicians coming in, what you mean is all these people who have been at each other’s throat for 10 years already settling their differences…
A: I think when time goes you will always see new generations but also new approaches and sometimes it’s surprising how contaminated the political scene is due to a situation you have had and I think Mr. Ivanishvili is a part of that contamination.
By far still the largest opposition figure, even after 6 years, is ex-President Saakashvili. He has had quite an adventure in Ukraine and is now in The Netherlands, but he is still harboring his chances and dreams of getting back to Georgia, starting it all over and putting an end to Ivanishvili’s reign. What do you think of his chances?
I don’t really know and I cannot judge. The only thing I know is that it’s very important that the future of Georgia is decided upon by parliamentary elections and by people acting in Parliament. It might be Mr./Mrs. A, B or C but it must be in the Parliament where the changes are taking place.
Our interview would be incomplete without hearing your opinion on Syrian governments – that is, if you recognize Bashar Assad’s regime’s decision to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent entities. Many saw Russia’s hand in this. What’s your take?
The recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states violates international law and illustrates the close links between the Syrian regime and Russia. It’s clear that these recognitions by criminal regimes are influenced by Russia, with the Assad regime getting military support from Russia and using it against its own people. The interesting thing is that so few regimes are doing it, only those who are defining themselves by the same criminal behaviour as the Russian regime, and only when you are totally dependent on it for survival.