Austrian Ambassador on that Refugee Camp Idea

It didn’t really become a point of discussion in European media. Sure, it was the famous Bild, they interviewed two of the most popular young politicians in Europe – foreign ministers (FM) of Austria and Germany – high profile, but nothing out of the ordinary. The Western press is already familiar with FM Sebastian Kurz’s hardline stance on migration issues and his policy to stem the tide of immigration into Europe. But, while voicing the idea of creating refugee camps outside the EU, Kurz dropped a name (alongside Egypt and an unspecified country in the Balkans) as one of the possible locations: Georgia. And the name was heard! Kurz’s words were hotly debated in Georgian society, with the government having to rush in with explanatory statements that nothing of this kind was even discussed, let alone planned.

Worse, however, was the spin that Russian media and the Kremlin MEP’s gave the story – that the creation of refugee camps was the payoff Georgia had to take to be granted visa-liberalization. The government rushed in once again, explaining there was no connection whatsoever, with important European authorities following suit. But the damage had been done, with Euroskeptics and Kremlin sympathizers gleefully preaching about the “corruption that Brussels brings.”

Believable or not, one doesn’t need to look far to see the effects of this kind of propaganda. One of the major factors that precipitated the win of a pro-Russian presidential candidate in Moldova, another Eastern Partnership country, was the Kremlin propaganda wheel spreading outright lies about how the country would have been obliged by Brussels to host “thousands of migrants from the Middle East” had the pro-Western candidate won. So, to take part in steering the course in the right direction and asking all the right questions, Panorama Talk Show and GEORGIA TODAY paid a visit to the Ambassador of Austria to Georgia, His Excellency Arad Benko, who graciously accepted our request on very short notice.

“First of all, let me say that regrettably, the words of our Minister were misunderstood,” Mr. Benko said when asked whether there was any real thought or planning behind the idea of a refugee camp in Georgia. “It’s important to see the bigger picture here: Europe, including Austria, is in the middle of a refugee crisis. Even after closing the borders in 2016, we had 42,000 asylum applications. The idea of refugee centers outside Europe isn’t new; it’s been discussed on the European level throughout the last couple of months. Georgia was voiced as an idea, not a concrete proposal of any sorts, just an idea, and it has nothing to do with FM Kurz’s earlier visit to Georgia. It wasn’t an issue that was discussed during his visit in February.”

So why would Georgia, which can barely afford to provide for the basic necessities of its own (more than 230,000) refugees and internally displaced persons, want to open such a center? Or, more importantly, why would the EU think we would want to do that? The ambassador insisted that Georgia “is not an option that was ever discussed” and FM Kurz mentioning Georgia “should be understood as a partnership towards Georgia”.

“I understand that the message came out in a totally negative way,” the Austrian envoy said. “My understanding is that due to the excellent level of cooperation we have in many areas, he [Kurz] saw Georgia as a partner in the fight against uncontrolled migration. I know it’s easy to misinterpret, which many did, on purpose or not”.

And now for the ethereal, mythical elephant in the room. Is the refugee camp idea in any way connected to Georgia getting the visa liberalization nod from Brussels? The ambassador doesn’t hesitate to answer, eager to leave no grounds for misinterpretation this time.

“No, no and no. No connection, absolutely no relation whatsoever,” he stresses. “Austria was one of those countries which was very much for granting Georgia visa-free access. There were a couple of skeptical countries, but Austria wasn’t one of them. We are firm supporters of Georgia’s way to Europe and this is why we opened an embassy here. Visa liberalization for us is recognition of Georgia’s European location, of Georgia’s European way. It worked very hard for this and in the end, won. Well-deserved, I might say! The refugee camp in Georgia, I repeat, is an idea, just an idea, with no concrete proposal, never ever discussed with the Georgian government. It’s just a part of European discussion on migration. The possible implications, or we might say, repercussions, of having a refugee camp in Georgia is something we never thought about. And we’re very sorry for this twist coming from Russian media, but it’s clear to see – it has nothing to do with visa liberalization!”

With Russia mentioned, we ask whether this would give Russia increased leverage over Georgia. FM Lavrov complains week in, week out that Georgia is “a corridor for extremists,” and the part of the world that has even a vague idea where Georgia is, listens. Surely statements like Kurz’s must be playing into Russia’s hands? We ask the ambassador.

“Geopolitically, we have to admit that Georgia is located in a region which is not very peaceful. As a neutral country, and an OSCE chairman one to boot, we’re trying to keep good relations with both parties. And I’m not talking about Georgia and Russia in this case – I mean the undesirable developments between Russia and the West. As a neutral country, we don’t want the Cold War coming back. So in this regard, we are also trying to do what we can for better relations between Georgia and Russia. That said, Austria definitely doesn’t see Georgia as a corridor for terrorists. We know that the security services of Georgia are doing a very good job and that the Georgian government is making all necessary efforts to control any situation that might arise. We know that because of our close cooperation; our trust in their excellent work is full. We know that Georgia is a safe country, as do all of Georgia’s partners; including Western Europe countries and the US. And again, do not forget that fake news is not just a media term, but a very valid propaganda tool for some governments. And that’s something we’re very concerned about. Word spreads very quickly and people tend to believe what they want to believe. That’s why the role of independent media is so important today.” An argument we are in full agreement with.

Vazha Tavberidze

09 March 2017 18:40