There are 15 post-Soviet states ranging from Armenia to Uzbekistan. Russia is the largest and most well known. The others have widely varying degrees of success and stability. Ukraine has been in the headlines in the United States a great deal lately, but while it struggles with corruption and Russian interference, one other post-Soviet state is thriving.
Georgia is located at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe. It sits beside the Black Sea. Georgia’s neighbor to the north is Russia and immediately to the south lies Turkey and Armenia.
As some in the region struggle, Georgia seems to have found its pace. The relatively small country of 3.7 million has a beautiful, diverse and yet compact geography that lends itself to tourism and its location between Asia and Europe is ideal.
The president of Georgia, Salome Zurabishvili, sat down recently for an exclusive interview with The Washington Times and fielded questions ranging from the economy to the difference in the diplomacy of Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
What may be surprising to some Americans is the forward-thinking approach to economics demonstrated by Georgia. The World Bank ranks Georgia #6 of all countries on earth as far as ease of doing business. That is ahead of the United States and ahead of the United Kingdom. President Zurabishvili sees the user friendly approach as essential to continued growth and prosperity.
“It is fundamental. It is really what will drive the Georgian economy in the coming years. That has been a constant prioritization of the Georgian authorities to be sure that Georgia is recognized as the shining point between Europe and Asia.”
The president continues, “We have openings on both free markets. It should be very attractive for potential investors. But Georgia it seems, is a bit exotic. Not everybody knows, especially in the United States, where people sometimes tend to mix us up with your state of Georgia. They have to be attracted by the fact that it might be exotic but it is going to be easy.”
“What is interesting is that when Europeans or Americans come to Georgia, they learn that it’s not that different, it is very European in many ways. It keeps its exotic touch, but it is very European and they feel very much at ease.” Madame President clearly wants to see more investment in her nation. “To do business in Georgia you need to come to discover it and then to enjoy it and all the festivities.”
After winning election, President Zurabishvili has a six-year term to accomplish her goals. Her priorities are already abundantly evident. One is the transformation of Georgia from a Soviet society to a post-Soviet society. The next is to get back into the European and Euro-Atlantic family. Zurabishvili says they are headed in the right direction. “We have made lots of progress on that. We have become an associate member of the European Union, we have a free trade agreement.”
It is fascinating in an era where Hillary Clinton still complains that the United States doesn’t offer equal opportunities to women to hear President Zurabishvili tout Georgia’s track record for her gender. “Georgia traditionally had no problem for women.” She points out 12th century Georgian royalty, led by a woman, enjoyed history’s biggest expansion of Georgia, and that Georgia was Christianized by a woman.
“There were five women elected in the first constituted assembly of Georgia in 1921. Many lawyers, doctors and other professionals are women.” Ironically, President Zurabishvili says politics has not always seen a lot of female candidates, yet she won election with nearly 60 percent of the vote. Apparently Georgia has no glass ceiling at the top. She says that her administration has about 80 percent female employees.
Tourism ranks at the top of Georgia’s economy. The president explains why, “Hospitality is the brand of Georgia. That has always been the case. We are welcoming peoples of all different types, a mixed bag.” She explains that the Georgian word for “foreigner” and for “splendid” is the same word.
One side note indicating a sensitivity to the immigration challenges faced by nations worldwide, including America, President Zurabishvili made a point to clarify. “We are very welcoming to foreigners as individuals. We are not that generous to say that we would welcome thousands of them” at a time.
She describes the Georgia-United States relationship as excellent, but immediately adds that it could be even more excellent. “We need more American investment, more American tourists and we hope to feature many Georgian cultural events here in the US.”
Few would argue that the diplomatic styles of former President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump are markedly different. Asked to compare the two, President Zurabishvili shows a bit of diplomacy herself, “It doesn’t impact Georgia. The US relationship is very precious for us. We have been bi-partisan. We’ve never had an issue being divided by the U.S. parties.” She pauses and then adds, “The fact we are supported in Georgia in an extremely bi-partisan way is extremely important.”
As President, Zurabishvili makes a point to be Georgia’s greatest promoter. She speaks fondly of the 8000 year heritage of wine making. Her government is encouraging the film industry to take advantage of the close proximity of biodiversity. There is desert and there are mountains. There is the Black Sea and there are vineyards. The cities feature both European and Asian influences, with some areas appearing medieval and others clearly modern.
When one thinks of former Soviet states the stereotypical image is old crumbling infrastructure and of a stiff people. Georgia is something quite different. President Zurabishvili wants everyone to know they are a beautiful tourist destination, open for business and seeking to encourage even more.