(Washington, DC -- April 28, 2006) The Republic of Georgia's new Ambassador to the U.S., Vasil Sikharulidze expressed optimism about the progress Georgia has made toward achieving its post-Rose Revolution domestic and foreign policy goals, but admitted that much work still needs to be done. Ambassador Sikharulidze made the comments during a recent briefing at RFE/RL's Washington office.
Amb. Sikharulidze hailed Georgia's successes in combating corruption and organized crime. Shortly after President Mikheil Saakashvili assumed power, the Georgian government began prosecuting corrupt officials and fired the country's entire police force. President Saakashvili's actions made an impact, the ambassador said, noting that public trust in the new government institutions is at 70 percent. Exports have risen by 60 percent, according to Sikharulidze, and the growth rate in Georgia's gross domestic product (GDP) reached 9 percent last year -- double the rate in 2002. An overhaul of Georgia's tax laws has resulted in a more than 300 percent increase in budget revenues, the ambassador said. Georgia is building new courthouses, improving staff training, and working to increase civic knowledge in the education system, Sikharulidze said, in an effort to build public faith in the rule of law and the judiciary.
In discussing his country's foreign policy priorities, the ambassador noted that Georgia is enhancing its ties with the West, while moving away from Russia. Ambassador Sikharulidze said that, by 2008, Russia's military presence in Georgia will come to an end. He admitted, however, that Russian cooperation is important in dealing with frozen conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia is also working with the United States to develop new civilian-led military institutions, the ambassador said.
"There is no more important foreign policy goal to Georgia," Ambassador Sikharulidze said, "than to join NATO." He noted that his country has been participating in NATO projects since 1996 and, in 2004, began to move toward NATO membership. Georgia has deployed 850 soldiers to serve as part of the Multi-National Force in Iraq, the ambassador said, and also maintains a military presence in Kosovo.