In his second annual state of the nation address to the Parliament on February 14, President Saakashvili said that Georgia has become a country with rapidly growing economy, which has the chance to join NATO by 2008.
In an 80-minute flamboyant speech, packed with excerpts from the patriotic Georgian verses, Saakashvili also voiced several initiatives he plans to propose to the Parliament in the near future.
President Saakashvili said that Georgia’s economy is “growing rapidly,” which will enable the country to overcome poverty by 2009.
“Today we are still a very poor state from the economic point of view, but we are on the path which will help us overcome problems… GDP is expected to reach USD 1670 per capita in 2006; in 2010 GDP will be USD 2400 per capita, this means that by 2009 Georgia will no longer be classified as a poor state,” President Saakashvili said.
He said that GDP growth was about 9% in 2005. “This is despite the fact that oil prices increased last year,” Saakashvili added.
The President said that the government privatized 816 facilities in 2005. “Total revenue from the privatization process last year amounted to GEL 522 million [USD 290 million],” he said.
Saakashvili also said that the foreign trade turnout increased by 33% in 2005. “What is most important is that we increased export by 36% last year,” he added.
But he said that despite a breakthrough in many areas, the customs system still remains an unsolved problem.
“Hundreds of customs officers were arrested for bribery but it still did not help. We need a new, liberal customs code,” Saakashvili said.
He said that the government plans liberalization of the customs system by cutting the number of customs dues from the current 16 to 3.
“We will have customs dues rated zero, five and twelve percents… and within the next two years we should introduce all zero-rated customs dues… which will be a very serous step towards liberalizing the economy,” Saakashvili said.
“This means that we will have GEL 80 million less income going to the budget, but you should know that this money will be a huge investment in the economy in a long-term perspective,” Saakashvili said.
He said that the banking system also needs to be liberalized, to ease procedures for foreign banks to enter the Georgian market. He said that the labor code, as well as bankruptcy legislation, should also be liberalized.
Saakashvili said that Georgia started a large-scale road construction projects and infrastructure rehabilitation in the country.
“This year and next year we will construct more roads than were made in Soviet times. For the first time in the past 30 years a tunnel was opened [in the Adjara Autonomous Republic]… 83 bridges were reconstructed… in 2005 we launched the construction of a highway in western Georgia. In 2006-2008 we plan to finish a modern Tbilisi-Khashuri highway,” he said.
Saakashvili described the planned rehabilitation of the road in the predominantly Armenian populated Samtskhe-Javakheti region as “a political act of historic importance.”
He also said that reconstruction of cities is also underway. “We have ambition to create modern architecture, which will remain for dozens and hundreds of years,” he added.
While commenting on the recent energy crisis in Georgia, which erupted after two gas pipelines were blown-up in Russia’s North Ossetia on January 22, Saakashvili said that Georgia was prepared for this crisis, “because we knew that something like this could have happened.”
He also slammed those opponents who criticized the Georgian leadership for making tough-worded statements and directly accusing Moscow of masterminding those explosions.
“Some [opponents] asked why I voiced loud protest [towards Russia]. We already had a President [Eduard Shevardnadze] who kept his mouth shut like a dead man when pipes were blown up in previous times. And what good it has brought to Georgia? Of course I voiced protest and I will voice protest every time, because we have pride,” Saakashvili said.
He also said that the government will actively work on securing alternative sources of energy supplies.
“We were working over alternatives because we knew that our ‘friends’ were able to do this [blow up the gas pipelines]… We have reconstructed the pipeline with Azerbaijan, we have restored possible gas delivery routes from Iran; of course we are working on the Shah-Deniz project, we are working with European importers so that they can use our transit capabilities,” Saakashvili said.
He said that for the first time since independence, Georgia now has a round-the-clock electricity supply.
President Saakashvili outlined the vigorous fight against crime as one of the priorities of the authorities and said that “zero tolerance towards petty crime” will be the authorities’ policy.
He hailed the Georgian law enforcement agencies, but said that they need “legislative support” to improve their fight against crime.
Saakashvili slammed judges for, as he put it, showing too much mercy towards criminal suspects.
“Police will round up thieves but the next day a ‘kind’ judge, like [Merab] Turava [one of the judges who has recently accused the authorities of mounting pressure on the judiciary] will release them… Why do they release them and where? They release them back onto the street,” Saakashvili said.
“I am initiating a new draft law: zero tolerance towards even petty crime. I am initiating amendments to the criminal code, which envisage banning conditional sentences for house burglary, street robbery, possession of drugs and other petty offenses. 'No' to conditional sentence; everyone who commits these [crimes] should go to jail,” the President enthusiastically stated.
“For this reason we are now constructing a new pre-trial detention center in Tbilisi, which will house 3000 persons,” he added.
“Zero tolerance towards even petty offenses – this is our new, firm policy. I am saying this to let everyone understand this – the courts, the Parliament, the executive authorities, the police - everyone,” Saakashvili stated.
Saakashvili said that Georgia will become a NATO membership candidate this year and will most likely join the alliance in 2008.
“We are very close to NATO [membership]… I want to announce today that Georgia has a real chance to become a NATO member in 2008. This year we will become a NATO membership candidate country,” Saakashvili said.
“This [NATO membership] means that Georgia’s borders will be NATO’s borders and these borders will be defended not by our tanks and planes, but it will be defended by several thousands western planes,” he added.
He said that Georgia currently has “the smallest army in the region, but it is the best equipped army.”
“We are a peaceful nation, but in this region, with plenty of threats, we need to have a strong army,” he added.
In his address President Saakashvili said nothing about his position on the ongoing debates about the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeeping forces from the South Ossetian conflict zone.
Parliament is expected to adopt a resolution demanding the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers on February 15.
But he said during his address that “there is no alternative to Georgia’s reunification.”
“We have peace plans [to solve the conflicts],” he added.
“We will be friends to the Abkhazians and Ossetians… We want our Ossetians back in Georgia. These people are an organic part of the Georgian mentality,” Saakashvili said.
He also said that Russia’s attempt to push a policy of universality of the Kosovo "example will be eradicated by Georgia and the international community."
Saakashvili spoke much about the education system and said that reforms in this system eradicated corruption and established equal opportunities. He said a large scale programs for schools throughout Georgia is underway envisaging reconstruction of old schools and construction of about 30 new schools. He also said that computerization program for schools is also underway.
Opposition parliamentarians criticized the President for not focusing on problems during his speech.
“[From the President’s speech] we could not understand what his position on the peacekeepers is; how the authorities plan to address problems… This was not a speech by a politician, it was a speech by a street-rally leader,” MP Kakha Kukava of the opposition Conservative Party said.
“His information and figures about the economy were extremely exaggerated… But on the other hand, he at least did not start attacking his opponents again, which is of course positive,” MP Levan Berdzenishvili of the opposition Republican Party said.