The Austrian Ambassador on Austria-Georgia Relations

Exclusive Interview

Mr. Arad Benkö has been the Ambassador for Austria for over three years and was the first Austrian Ambassador to Georgia. GEORGIA TODAY met him to find out more about his time here and experience.

“We opened the Embassy here in Tbilisi because we have so many bilateral activities that we implement here, ranging from development aid, cultural corporation, education and business and cooperation in asylum matters,” he told us. “Politically, the aim was to have an Ambassador and an Embassy to oversee the whole spectrum of relations. Prior to that, knowledge about our activities in Georgia was less coordinated and visibility low. My aim is to get a better overview, and bring them together where appropriate. If you ask me what the most important project is, it is definitely to bring our different initiatives together, work to feel the ‘temperature’ of relations, and relay to the investors what kind of structure is working in Georgia.”

Tell us about Austria-Georgia relations.

Relations are excellent and we try to focus on business and EU approximation.

Overall, we have very positive upwards trends, for instance, in 2017 and 2018, we had a 75% increase in export from Austria to Georgia and 20% from Georgia to Austria. Still, this result does not reflect the actual increasing interest by Austrian companies in the Georgian market. Like its neighbors, Georgia has some “oriental” elements of doing business and one needs to invest time, money and build personal relationships.

Apart from EU aid, Austria has different programs in supporting Georgia in its transformation process and on its way to becoming part of the European family. For example, the Austrian Development Agency has been focusing on developing agriculture, forestry and local governance since 2013 and over EUR90 mln has been granted in that time.

How have Georgian-Austrian relations changed for the better since you took office at the Embassy?

The most important thing was the opening of the Embassy in 2016. Austria supports many projects in Georgia, although there is not too much visibility I must admit. Traditionally, our companies are not inclined to market what they are doing. The Embassy tries to make some of it visible. Austria´s foreign policy focusses on the EU and Europe as we are a small country. Therefore, the Embassy is crucial to our relationship and to the visibility of what we are doing in this country.

Are there many applicants from Georgia for the Austrian visa? How about annual visitors from Austria, as interest between these two countries and citizens rises?

We have seen a very strong increase in tourism: From 2017 to 2018, a 75% increase in tourism from Austria, and this year we foresee approximately the same amount. As an embassy, we try to make leisure easier for tourists. We also have a hotline and an info gathering page where the incoming tourists can share experiences.

After visa liberalization for Georgian citizens took effect, there was a strong increase in direct flights from Georgia to the Schengen area. One of the first direct flights introduced was Wizzair from Kutaisi to Vienna in February. Many people took these flights and there was an increase in asylum seekers form Georgia to Austria. As a result, Vienna airport controlled more vigorously passports, the reasons for entering the country, and the cash and return tickets of passengers. As it turned out, many people did not meet the requirements, so we had to refuse entry and send them back to Georgia. Soon afterwards, Austrian police officers were sent to Kutaisi Airport as part of Frontex in order to support the airline and Georgian officers. This was to stop potential asylum seekers already in Georgia and limit misunderstandings. Today, there are some police officers from EU member states in Kutaisi as there are more flights going to cities in the Schengen zone. Our cooperation with the Ministry of Internal Affairs is excellent in this field. The government is fully aware that visa liberalization is a great achievement which should not be lost.

About 30% of Georgia’s GDP is comprised of tourist spending. How do you see the tourism sector development in Georgia? Are there different business and economic sectors you would recommend Georgia enter and thrive in?

Georgia needs to attract investors. Georgia needs an educated labor force, from, for example, the car industry, to the textile industry. We all know it’s easy to open a business in Georgia, but to maintain it is another challenge. The US, EU, the international financial institutions are doing a great job in Georgia but at the end of the day the responsibility lies with the government. In my opinion, Georgia needs to invest in education and skilled labor. Big international enterprises look for areas to produce their products in a cheaper environment, and Georgia is very attractive in this sense, but the ‘people’ are missing.

The government must act on these issues and do what the State is expected to do. The reason Austria has such low unemployment is that the State is trusted and efficient and we enjoy social peace. We also have strong employment institutions that monitor where more people are needed. Georgia has started moving in this European way, the social democratic way, to find a middle road between the radical free market and healthy support from the State for citizens in employment, health or retirement schemes. Overall, the point is that Georgia must not rely on donors: it must be a Georgian-led process and not led by outsiders.

Georgia needs to see its own interests; it has to take what is important and to reject what is not. To be dependent on donors is always bad. Just like Israel, Georgia needs to focus on the ‘brains’, on innovations and production suitable for its geography and economy.

There’s a fair amount of Austrian investment in Georgia. How attractive is Georgia for Austrian investors?

In the field of business, we had a very strong increase. Every year, we have business missions organized by the Austrian Chamber of Commerce. In 2016, we had nine companies participating, in 2017, 16, and 2018, 27 companies participated. So, we have an upsurge of Austrian companies wanting to enter the Georgian market. In 2019, we have two business missions.

From the larger companies who are present here, Gebrüder Weiss, Doppelmayr, Rauch and Andritz Hydropower to name a few, are successful and happy here. They can afford an office here and permanent staff. But Austria is a country of SMEs, (small and medium enterprises) and we would like some of these companies in Georgia too, to make business without necessarily opening an office.

How would you evaluate Georgia’s political vector towards the Euro-Atlantic community and integration to the West? From the EU perspective, are we making progress? What needs to be changed to be more successful?

There is too much fluctuation in Georgia. In the EU, legislation is executed by civil servants who stay at their posts for 20, 30 or even 40 years! In Georgia, hierarchy is very important which makes decision-making less efficient and slower. Ministerial changes should not involve disruptions. Civil servants need to be empowered to continue to work and make decisions. For example, Austria has had “only” an interim government for the last 6 months and we’re doing well.

What we try to do is to support this capacity-building in the long-run; the main aim is to support Georgia to be ready to join the EU. Whether the EU will take Georgia in is another question, but the preparations must be made, so that when this window of opportunity opens up, Georgia is well-furnished and operational.

How do you see the future of diplomatic relations between the two countries?

The diplomatic relationship is better than ever between our two countries. That was the reason we opened the Austrian Embassy here in the first place, to find many correlating interests and to act upon them. Ever since the opening of the Embassy, our political, business and even cultural relations have intensified.

By Beka Alexishvili

25 November 2019 21:37