Georgian-Swiss relations go back to the 19th century when Swiss farmers and traders settled in Tsarist Georgia. For Georgians striving towards Europe and eager to share its values, Swiss features such as professional skills and a passion for quality and perfection are more relevant now than ever. GEORGIA TODAY met the Swiss Ambassador to Georgia, H.E. Lukas Beglinger, to find out where Georgia-Swiss relations stand and what the two countries can exchange.
What do you think of Georgia?
I like living and working in Georgia very much. It’s a very hospitable and versatile country; and the population is sociable and open for dialogue and exchange, which makes it easier and rewarding for a diplomat to do good and sustainable work.
The Swiss first trod Georgian soil in the 19th century to work in commodity trade and dairy farming. What can you tell us about it?
Swiss-Georgian relations have an interesting past, with parallels to the present. This year, it is 200 years since the first German settlers came to Georgia. The aftermath of the Napoleonic era and a volcanic eruption in Indonesia led to a hunger crisis in large parts of Europe in 1817. Here in Georgia, it was the era of the Tsar, who was interested in attracting well-educated people from Western Europe. And even back then, Swiss and Germans had good professional skills which enabled them to contribute to Georgia’s economic development. In the late 19th century, the Russian government offered Swiss farmers land for farming and they came and settled here in Georgia, particularly in the region of Bolnisi and Marneuli. Tragically, during the first World War, they were attacked by bands of robbers and when the Red Army came a few years later, the Swiss had to leave.
Since the 1990s, Swiss citizens have been coming back to Georgia with a similar purpose as in the 19th century. To this day, we aim to improve the farming and professional skills of people working in agriculture and related sectors; we want to pass on our expert knowledge and promote an efficient and competitive agriculture where 50% of the active Georgian population is employed.
How are the current Swiss-Georgian relations?
The bilateral relations between Georgia and Switzerland are friendly, close and trusting. This is illustrated by our protecting power mandate for Russia in Georgia and for Georgia in Russia, as well as by the regular high-ranking meetings between our countries. The Georgians are also aware that Switzerland has a lot to offer in important fields such as vocational education, innovation and quality standards.
How has the relationship changed over the last few years? How will the Free Trade Agreement between Georgia and the EFTA-States, signed last year, affect the relationship?
Switzerland has adjusted its strategy of development cooperation and engagement in peace policy to the current situation. The economic exchange, including tourism, has developed positively, as it has in the field of science and culture. But in all of these areas, there is still a lot of development potential. The Free Trade Agreement with Georgia will be an important tool to harness this potential : it puts Switzerland and the other EFTA countries on a par with the EU in their trade relations with Georgia, and it will contribute to Georgia’s integration efforts in relation to Europe and the world economy.
Your predecessor, Günther Bächler, met the Russian Section in Tbilisi every week to discuss current issues. Does such a meeting still take place?
Our embassy maintains an intense exchange with the Russian Interest Section. Due to Switzerland’s protecting power mandate, the Russian Section is formally a part of the Swiss embassy. The contacts do not only take place at my level, but also at the level of my staff.
The Swiss don’t know a lot about Georgia. Is the reverse also true of Georgians?
The Swiss reputation in Georgia is excellent; to a certain extent, Switzerland is seen here as a “dreamland”. Swiss enterprises and their products and services stand for quality, accuracy and reliability. However, only a minority can afford a trip to, or a longer stay in, Switzerland. The Georgian policy-makers particularly appreciate the long-lasting mediation of Switzerland between Georgia and Russia.
Georgia wants to strengthen its tourist sector. Are there special efforts that can attract Swiss tourists?
Primarily, it is the business of the responsible Georgian stakeholders to promote Georgia in Switzerland, though Swiss travel agencies are also involved.
Undoubtedly, tourism is an important and promising field for the Georgian economy. Luckily, the current government is aware of this fact and acts accordingly. In line with the development of our cooperation with Georgia, we facilitate the sustainable development of tourism. We have financed signs and infrastructure for hiking trails, we support alpine farming, we are involved in the training of mountain guides and are ready to share our general experience and expertise in mountain-related tourism with the Georgian government.
In the 1990s, Swiss mountain guides started to train Georgian mountaineers according to Swiss standards. A group of guides went to the Swiss mountains to gain skills. At the moment, Georgia has around a dozen certified mountain guides but there are also guides without adequate qualifications. That’s something we would not accept in Switzerland. Now, the Georgian government is supporting the establishment of an Adventure Tourism School and considering the introduction of legislation regulating the guide profession with the support of Swiss experts. That is a good example of concrete and effective cooperation based on European standards.
What can the Swiss learn from Georgians and vice versa?
The Swiss should be inspired by the improvisation skills, flexibility and adaptability that Georgians require to survive. In Switzerland, people often complain despite excellent living conditions, which bear little comparison to the situation here in Georgia.
Georgian citizens demand development in almost every sector, and they can learn a lot from a politically and economically successful country like Switzerland. For example: our practice-oriented education system, professional working and production methods, constitutional and democratic processes and emancipated citizens.
The Georgian government announced an educational reform in 2016. What will this change?
When Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili took on his position, he announced that education would be one of the four most important topics on his agenda, particularly vocational education, as he announced his plan to adopt the German dual-education system, which is comparable to the Swiss system.
I commend the government for its recognition that education is a key challenge for Georgia which needs to be addressed as a priority.
The diagnosis is done, but the therapy is harder and will take time. The government will have to take reform measures at all levels of the education system- something which can be expected to meet a lot of resistance.
It won’t be easy to re-establish a high-quality vocational education system, but it is necessary if Georgia wants to successfully develop its economy and create enough jobs for its population. Switzerland and other international donors support Georgia in this endeavor, for instance through our projects in the field of rural development. Swiss enterprises working in Georgia also make valuable contributions by training their local staff. But the Georgian government must do the main part, which, of course, requires political will, a long-term strategy and stamina.
Last autumn saw the parliamentary elections here in Georgia. How did it affect your work?
Georgians realized that the elections were a test of the democracy here. And because they have the ambition to join the European Union and enter NATO, democratic standards are essential. For me as an ambassador, the election period was very exciting because I met numerous parties, NGOs, journalists, etc. and got a better insight into how the country works.
Switzerland contributed to the election monitoring. Election day was intensive for our Embassy, but this was equally true for the full four months of the election campaign in which we maintained contacts with all the important stakeholders.
The continuity of the government and parliament facilitates the smooth continuation of our bilateral relations and of our well established cooperation in many important fields. The government has a clear mandate to carry on its reform and development policies, and it can count on our steady support in this regard.
The Swiss Embassy organizes events in the field of cultural exchanges. What activities are planned this year?
Like every year, we will organize several cultural events during the French language month, the Italian language week and in the week dedicated to the German language. Switzerland also participates in Georgian film festivals and contributes to the promotion of the cultural scene in Georgia.
A good example is the Tskaltubo Art Festival: having been set up with Swiss support in the past years, it will take place for the 5th time in September 2017 and give visibility to the energies and competences of Tskaltubo’s inhabitants which include thousands of IDPs from the Abkhazia conflict. It allows for an exchange of artists between Switzerland and Georgia and involves collaborative workshops and performances in fields such as dance, music and visual arts. Participation and interest from the side of local population, in particular local youth, is usually very high.
This interview was first published in „Georgia Today“.