When the leaders of 34 countries meet on 21-22 May for the Riga Eastern Partnership Summit, we will be confronting geopolitical realities which are dramatically different from those which framed our last gathering. Already in Vilnius in November 2013, the Russian Federation posed a serious challenge to basic principles of international law and praxis, including the sovereign right of nations to decide their own future. But since then, Moscow has gone much further in its aggressive attempts to tear down the very fundamentals of the European security architecture.
For the EU as for the partner countries, including Georgia, this Summit will therefore be critical. We must make sure it delivers a strong message of joint commitment to the European future of our region, and backs this up with concrete measures to realize this vision. The progress towards visa liberalization for Georgia will be an important part of the picture.
Those who doubt the value and success of the Eastern Partnership Initiative have only to look at Georgia to stand corrected. While we benefit from the overwhelming consensus in our country in favor of democratic reforms and European integration, the Eastern Partnership Initiative has provided the concrete framework for the realization of this vision, not least through the Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement signed last June. Over the last two and a half years alone, we have, with the support of our EU partners, made great strides in bringing Georgia into line with the highest European and international standards. Today, we are proud to be recognized as a regional leader in terms of democracy and human rights, a stable and secure investment destination in a key strategic location and a pro-active contributor to European and international security.
The benefits accrued to both Georgia and the EU thanks to this all-encompassing transformation are substantial. But our region still has a long way to go to reach the state of peace, stability, democracy and prosperity to which we all aspire. In Georgia, we are well aware of the challenges, both internal and external, that lie ahead. We are fully committed to maintaining the momentum of reforms. We trust in turn that the EU will continue its support for Georgia’s European path, matching reforms with increased integration based on defined, transparent criteria.
An immediate critical element of this equation will be the EU’s stance at Riga on visa liberalization for Georgia. We have put immense efforts into fulfilling all the benchmarks for visa-free travel, as part of our overall development program and in order to demonstrate to our people that the commitment to comprehensive reforms delivers tangible benefits. When the technical requirements completed, it is our clear hope that the visa-free travel to the EU will be granted for Georgian citizens.
Removing visa requirements for Georgian citizens will mean more tourism, cultural and student exchanges, and civil society partnerships. This will help develop Georgia and anchor the next generations firmly within the European family of nations. Most importantly, it will provide a clear demonstration to the people of Georgia, including in the occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and to those of the other Eastern Partnership countries, that the EU upholds a merit-based approach and delivers on its promises. For Georgians, visa liberalization will provide a long-awaited tangible reward for reforms and encourage renewed efforts. For the people of the occupied regions, it will be a symbol of what stands to be gained from reintegration with the Georgian state. For other Eastern Partnership countries, it will offer a clear incentive for reforms.
In today’s difficult context, the shared vision and values of the Eastern Partnership are more important than ever. If these are to flourish, we must demonstrate at Riga that they can and do translate into tangible benefits for the people of the region.
* Tamar Beruchashvili is the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia.