A joke about Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing the rounds in the Republic of Georgia where Putin, who last year tried to cripple the Georgian economy, is not exactly the flavor of the month.
The joke is that soon the Georgian government will invite him to Tbilisi to honor him for saving the Georgian economy.
Told this week in Jerusalem by George Arveladze, Georgia's Minister for Economic Development who is in Israel at the head of the Georgian delegation to the Georgia-Israel Business Forum taking place in Tel Aviv, the joke is symbolic of Georgia's "kill them with kindness" unilateral response to Russia's heavy-handedness.
When Russia closed all the borders to Georgia, severed aviation links, put an embargo on Georgian goods, expelled Georgian citizens living in Russia, stopped issuing visas to Georgians, outlawed money transfers from Russia to Georgia and refused to allow Georgian children to attend Russian schools, the Georgian reaction, said Arveladze, was to put out the welcome mat for Russian citizens, especially Russian investors, by abolishing visas, making the whole investment process as attractive as possible and in general proving that Georgia is a user-friendly country.
What Russia did would have been devastating for any country, said Arveladze, but more so in this case "because Russia was our number one trading partner."
Russia's bullying technique failed - and history repeated itself.
"What happened in Georgia happened in Estonia 15 years earlier when it was slipping away from Russian domination," recalled Arveladze. "The Russians punished Estonia by closing down the economy."
The result was that Estonia re-oriented from Russia to Europe and now, according to Arveladze, is one of the most dynamically developing economies in Europe.
Georgia's new number one trading partner is Turkey, with whom Georgia is now working on a free trade agreement, while simultaneously working on a free trade pact with the EU.
Despite the turmoil generated by Russia last year, Georgia's foreign trade went up by 40%, exports increased by 15% and there was a whopping 450% increase in foreign investments, primarily from the US and the UK .
Direct foreign investments made in Georgia in 2006 amounted to $1.147 billion compared to $450 million in 2005.
A significant number of those investments are by Russians. The major investors in energy, especially in Tbilisi, are Russians who are also aggressively investing in communications companies in Georgia and the Russian Bank in Georgia is also very successful.
The Georgian economy has diverted itself from Russia to Europe, "and in the long run everything that happened is better for the Georgian people," said Arveladze.
Georgia respects Russia's legitimate interests in the region Arveladze continued, "But we don't want Russia to be represented by military bases or political influences, which are not legitimate."
Arveladze who will celebrate his 29th birthday in July, is no stranger to Israel - he spent a year at Tel Aviv University from 1997-1998. While most Georgians who studied abroad chose universities in Europe or the US, Arveladze, who has degrees in International Law and International Relations and whose field of study was the Middle East, wanted to study the Middle East in a Middle East university.
He was lucky to be accepted, he said, because the course was geared towards Canadians and Americans.
Unabashedly admiring of Israel and of Jews, Arveladze disclosed that his decision to come and study here was "because of Israel's ability to survive and succeed. I was interested in learning about the Middle East from Israel."
What impressed him most during his year in Israel was the country's patriotism. He was charmed by the people "who no matter how divided they might be ideologically or socioeconomically unite to defend the country whenever it is under threat, hold up the flag and sing the national anthem."
Yet, while he loves the people, he's not particularly fond of the political system, which he believes should be more stable so that it is better equipped to deal with crises.
However, in other respects he thinks Israel is a great example for Georgia to emulate: both countries, he pointed out, are small, with scarce resources; each is located in a hostile, unstable environment; and each has proven its ability to face and overcome crises.
"Israel is creating one of the strongest states out of scratch. Israel is about vision and has shown everyone that despite the challenges and turmoil, the country is still developing. That's what Georgia needs. Israel is our ally and a member of a coalition that we also belong to. We have good potential for economic ties and amazing culture connections."
It was natural for Israel and Georgia to have a strong relationship, Arveladze noted, because Georgia has been a host country to Jews for 26 centuries "and during that time, nothing close to anti-Semitism has been demonstrated. Those relations are still there. We also provide a good ground for Israeli investments. Israelis are the best at seizing the moment, and this is the moment for opportunity in Georgia."
On a personal note, Arveladze is typical of the new young face in the Georgian government and in Georgian politics. Even President Mikheil Saakashvili will not be 40 until the end of the year, and he's older than his ministers.
Arveladze's political career began in 1995 at an NGO Political Development Center, moving from post to post, working in defense and security, justice, local and federal politics and international relations. He was the leader of the Permanent Delegation of the Parliament of Georgia to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and was elected vice-president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Prior to his present appointment he was Saakashvili's chief of staff.
None of his appointments have lasted for more than a year - some for even less, but he kept moving up in the ranks. It wasn't unswerving ambition that got him to where he is at such a young age. "Everything comes unexpectedly without my trying for some special position," he insisted. "It's just the way it happened."
There are people who are brighter than he is and better educated who are still waiting for their chance, he said. "I was just lucky."
He did concede that his family's investment in his education had paid dividends. "Sometimes I joke that I'm going to die and that's why I'm living a faster existence."
Although some people say that politics is like a drug from which one can't break the habit, Arveladze is not hooked to that extent. His first marriage broke up because of his work. He didn't think he had time for a new romance, but in the whirlwind of his activities, he somehow made time.
He has no intention of remaining in the public sector indefinitely. He dreams of going into the private sector and getting a life.
"The public sector doesn't give you space for a private life," he said. "I look on it as a temporary job, but there are certain goals I want my country to achieve before I leave the public sector. For the moment I'm totally dedicated to public service and that's what motivates me. When my country is as strong as Israel, I want to be able to tell my children and grandchildren what I did."
He is convinced that he will be ready to step out of the public eye in about seven years time. But first he wants to see Georgia united and part of NATO, "which is a guarantee for long-term stability and territorial integrity."
He also wants to see a strong constitution and everything in place to spur Georgia to continued economic growth.
"I'm not dreaming," he said. "I'm talking about what is possible. Everything is tangible. We can feel how close we are to NATO and economic growth and development. The whole excitement of Georgia is overcoming the challenges. It's more exciting than just progress."
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