Promise to boost Israeli investments in Georgia helps secure seat in parliament for ambassador

Lasha Zhvania says that Jews have generally fared well in Georgia, because "Israel and the Jews are an example for Georgians."

Lasha Zhvania 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Lasha Zhvania 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The promise to bring more Israeli investors to Georgia in general and to Tbilisi in particular has helped to transform Lasha Zhvania, Georgia's Ambassador to Israel from a diplomat to a member of Parliament. Zhvania, 34, who presented his credentials both in Israel and Cyprus three years ago, took vacation time to return to Georgia to campaign for a seat in his country's 150 member parliament, and was elected on May 21. He returned to Israel briefly to take care of some unfinished business then returned to Georgia, and will be back in Israel after the new parliament convenes for its first session on June 10 to wind up his affairs, to bid farewell to President Shimon Peres and to invite him to pay an official visit to Georgia. A graduate in International Humanitarian and Refugee Law, Zhvania never practiced, but went immediately into his country's Foreign Ministry. In 1998 he came to Israel as first secretary in his country's embassy, and from 2001-2002 served as Georgian Consul. He returned to Georgia to serve as deputy minister of finance from 2002 to 2003, and the following year served as deputy minister of foreign affairs. In 2005 he returned to Israel as ambassador, and has only just managed to complete three years of what is supposed to be a four-year term. Had he failed in his campaign for parliament, he would have probably returned to his ambassadorial post, allowed due to a loophole in Georgian law. Whereas any public figure running for parliament has to resign his post, diplomats serving abroad are not required to do so. When interviewed in Jerusalem this week, Zhvania surmised that whoever drafted the law never imagined that an ambassador who was enjoying himself abroad would ever want to come back to the grind of parliament. So he took a vacation, knowing that if he failed to be elected, there was still a job waiting for him in Tel Aviv. Many heads of foreign missions develop a deep affection for Israel during their tours of duty, but most have no prior experience of Israel and no emotional ties. Zhvania is an exception. His mother is Jewish, and in 1988, she brought him to Israel to meet his grandfather, aunts, and other relatives. After that, he returned to Israel every year to get together with relatives dispersed in Kiryat Bialik, Haifa, Nahariya and Netanya. During his periods of diplomatic service in Israel he made many friends. In addition to his native tongue, he speaks fluent Hebrew, Russian, Greek and English and regrets that he never got around to learning Arabic. When he became ambassador, Zhvania set himself a number of goals: To make people more aware of Georgia; to change Georgia's image in Israel: to boost trade relations; to increase tourism; to enhance relations with the Jewish world and to save Georgia's cultural heritage in Jerusalem - namely the Monastery of the Holy Cross - and other properties. Israelis used to think of Georgia as a surrogate of Russia, and referred to Georgians as "Gruzinim," which is the Russian terminology. Thanks to Zhvania's efforts, Georgians are now referred to in Hebrew as "Giorgim." There was always talk about the friendly relations between Israel and Georgia, said Zhvania, but "There was nothing you could attach to such statements. In 2002 there was only one Georgian pilgrim to Israel. In 2005 there was only one flight a week from Georgia to Israel, and it was more than half empty." There are now four flights a week, and they're usually full, and people are put on a waiting list, he noted with satisfaction. Hundreds of Georgian tourists are visiting Israel, many of them pilgrims, but also a significant number of businesspeople. Meanwhile, Israeli tourism to Georgia has grown by 400 percent since 2005, he said, "and in Tbilisi you can hear Hebrew in the streets and in all the hotels." While there has been a substantial increase in bona fide tourism from Israel to Georgia, the majority of visitors from Israel are businesspeople. "Over the past two years, Georgia has become an important destination for Israeli investment, especially in construction, infrastructure and high-tech." There's still a huge potential in agriculture, he said. Israeli investment in Georgia so far, he added, amounts to more than $1.5 billion. Not all of it comes directly from Israel. Several Israelis who have business interests in other countries have invested in Georgia through their foreign-based concerns rather than directly from Israel, but there are many Israelis who are ready to invest from here, according to Zhvania, who intends to return to Israel frequently to escort investor delegations to Georgia. Israelis who already have business ties with Georgia, said Zhvania, include the Ofer family and Nochi Dankner. During his election campaign, Zhvania established a foundation that will act as a liaison between Georgia and Israel, especially when it comes to cutting bureaucratic red tape and speeding up project implementation. The foundation will also create an employee database that will give Israeli investors instant access to the human resources they need for their investment projects. This, too, contributed to Zhvania's success at the polls, promising that many more jobs would become available as increasing numbers of Israelis invest in Georgia. Georgia's already good relationship with B'nai B'rith International has been solidified recently through visits to Georgia by BBI's top leadership, which is leading to much closer cooperation. But Zhvania is particularly proud of taking the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to Georgia and familiarizing them with the Georgian Jewish community - which numbers 8,000 - out of the country's population of 5 million. Two Jews hold ministerial positions in Georgia's government. Zhvania says that Jews have generally fared well in Georgia, because "Israel and the Jews are an example for Georgians." He cited commonalities between the two societies like preservation of identity and historic memory, strong ties to the homeland and an orientation towards future continuity. Although the corruption that existed in Georgia under Communist rule and in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Iron Curtain has been largely eradicated, Georgia still faces both internal and external threats, said Zhvania, which was why he decided to throw his lot in with President Mikhail Saakashvili - in whom he believes implicitly - and whose vision he shares. Yet for all that, part of his soul remains in Israel. "I'm leaving my post as ambassador, but I'm not leaving Israel. I became engaged with Israel 20 years ago and can never be disengaged. When I see Tbilisi Airport or when I see Ben-Gurion Airport, I always have the same feeling. I cannot explain what it is, but I do not have that feeling flying to any other country. All I know is that the heart always beats faster."