CoE Sec Gen on Georgia’s Presidency, Letting Russia Back in & the 2020 Action Plan for Georgia

Interview

During the Council of Europe (CoE) Secretary General Marija Pejcinovic Buric’s first field visit to Georgia, and ahead of Georgia taking up the Presidency of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers on November 27, for the first time in its history, we caught up with her to find out her views.

“I think it's a very historic and important step for Georgia, but at the same time it's very important year for the Council of Europe since it, as an organization, celebrates its 70th anniversary,” she told us. “Georgia itself marks its 20th anniversary of membership of the Council of Europe; so this visit was first and utmost to prepare the presidency, but it was also to discuss the bilateral issues and in general issues that are important for the organization and Georgia.”

What is expected of Georgia in the forthcoming presidency?

Georgia, like any country holding the presidency, is to choose its own priorities among the work area of the CoE, which is human rights, democracy and rule of law, and Georgia has really been very accurate choosing themes for its presidency events that will tackle human rights and the environment, something which is very pertinent for the global scene. It will be first time that environment-related human rights are discussed as the priority of one presidency; so it is a completely new approach and a very pertinent one for the discussion we have on the world level.

Georgia will also discuss child-friendly justice. Georgia has been very successful in the area of child protection.

A number of important things will be tackled during the presidency but of course Georgia itself will present a more detailed plan. What we expect is high level events that highlight both nationally in Georgia, but also develop a dialogue with and between other member states.

Within the theme of human rights, the current borderization of Georgia’s occupied territories might come up. How open would the CoE be to that?

The CoE is very strict about the respect of territorial integrity and sovereignty of each member state and for Georgia as well. The Secretary General issues a twice-yearly consolidated report on the conflict in Georgia that reflects the state of affairs. This is a pertinent and important way in which the Council of Europe deals with the issue of occupied territories; we are working a lot on confidence-building measures, assisting the government in their effort to find a peaceful settlement to this situation. This is reflected in our consolidated report on the conflict in Georgia which is submitted to the Committee of Ministers twice a year.

We have some Euro-skeptics who will ask about the impact of the report. What should we expect?

The Council of Europe is a place of dialogue, that's how it's formatted and it's in our major legal statute to work for unity and peace. The CoE is not a military security organization, but it can work from the point of view of protecting human rights and it can promote dialogue.

Many in this region and Ukraine were not very pleased when Russia was accepted back into the CoE. What’s your personal take on this?

The Council of Europe has always been very clear in its condemnation of the illegal annexation of Crimea. There is no doubt about that. But we found ourselves in a very unusual and unprecedented crisis because our two statutory organs, the Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) and the Committee of Ministers, had different approaches to dealing with the issue. In PACE, Russian parliamentarians were temporarily sanctioned and suspended from their right to vote. The Committee of Ministers passed several resolutions condemning Russia’s actions, but it did not sanction Russia.

If the Parliamentary Assembly kicked Russia out for annexing Crimea, was it so unthinkable for the Committee of Ministers to do the same?

I cannot speak for each of the 47 countries involved. But it is clear we needed to get back to a situation with “one body - one decision”. The only way to get out of the crisis was to find a political solution. In the end, both the Committee of Ministers and PACE decided it was better to engage with Russia than to risk a complete breakdown of any kind of dialogue. But at the same time, we knew we needed to work on a mechanism which would in the future prevent us from finding ourselves in the same situation.

Did it in any way improve things? Did giving Russia back a chair at the table help you get your message across to them?

We should come back to what the CoE can do, which is monitoring of human rights, democracy, rule of law. But I repeat, the CoE did not change an inch its position on the illegal annexation of Crimea, on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Be that as it may, lots of people in the former Soviet Union space saw what happened as a huge political and diplomatic victory for Russia. What would you tell those people?

In our statute it's clearly written that all member states have the right, indeed obligation, to participate in all our activities. And the majority of member states believed that in order to continue our work, it would be better to have Russia in than out of our democratic decision-making. We want all member states to comply with the values of the CoE, and this is primarily in the interest of their citizens.

The CoE action plan for Georgia has ended, and in 2020 we'll have another. How do you assess the implementation of the previous plan and what's in the new one?

We are very pleased how the former two Action Plans were implemented. I think we developed an excellent cooperation with different stakeholders in Georgia and we can already see some visible results; we worked on constitutional reform, on child-related issues, we worked on tackling corruption. Georgia is advancing in the field of gender equality, too. We developed the third Action Plan for 2020 to 2023 reflecting the internal needs of Georgia for reforms but also reflecting Georgia's international obligations, and it was prepared in a close cooperation with Georgian authorities. We always want the Action Plan to reflect what Georgia needs. In the last one, we worked quite a lot on gender equality, and we achieved something that I think Georgia can be very proud of: in this part of Europe, in the South Caucasus, it is the first country to have ratified the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe’s Convention against violence against women and domestic violence.

This month there was a screening of a gay love story in cinemas in Georgia, and far-right minded groups of people protested it. Any message on that for the people of Georgia?

Violence is deplorable, especially over such an issue, but I saw that the Georgian authorities reacted quickly and firmly I think this demonstrates [to society] that protecting minorities is still an important issue on which we need to work - not only in Georgia but also in many other parts of the world.

How would you comment on the mass protests in Tbilisi that took place over this past week?

We encourage Georgia to continue reforms, including on electoral reform. The Council of Europe and its body of constitutional experts, the Venice Commission, stand ready to offer Georgia assistance. The debate should continue in a constructive and peaceful manner. And that excludes any kind of violence.

By Vazha Tavberidze

21 November 2019 16:49