Georgia may not come to mind at once when one thinks of European countries, and too often may even be confused for the US state, but this little country located at the intersection of Europe and Asia holds substantial historical and cultural significance. Known for its friendly folks and high hills, Georgia may well be a travelers’ dream destination.
Looking forward to know much more about this beautiful country, Marketeers’ Saviq Bachdar sat down with Zurab Aleksidze who has served as the Georgian Ambassador to Indonesia and South East Asia since 2012.
Zurab previously worked as the Director of the Department Asia, Africa, Australia and Pacific Rim in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Georgia. He speaks fluent Georgian, Russian, Armenian, Italian, English, and French. Here are some excerpts from the conversation:
What is the main reason Georgia has opened an embassy in Jakarta?
First of all, this is the first embassy that we have opened in South East Asia. We thus consider Indonesia as a reliable partner and a friendly country.
Actually, there are many reasons. First, Indonesia is the world’s third-largest democracy. Second, we consider Indonesia to be of the fastest growing economies in the region. Boosted by increased investment and growing domestic demand, Indonesia could become the world’s 7th largest by 2030, up from 16th today.
Third, Jakarta is the capital of the ASEAN. Deepening of relations with ASEAN members is one of the most important directions in Georgian foreign policy. The geographic scope of cooperation and partnership with the region has become much wider as our country develops mutually beneficial business relations with important players of the region, including Indonesia.
In the future, we are planning to have a more comprehensive and intensive partnership with ASEAN countries. For us, Indonesia represents a kind of engine, a hub for Georgia to be connected with ASEAN.
The decision was taken in 2011. But officially, our embassy opened in November 2012. We are very happy to be here. I am not only first Georgian ambassador to Indonesia, but also the first to South East Asia. With this decision, we emphasize on the importance of Indonesia to become our priority partner in the context of international cooperation.
Some of us may not know much about Georgia. Please tell us more about your country.
That’s true (laughing). When I arrived in Jakarta nearly four years ago, nobody knew Georgia. Everybody was asking “Where is Georgia located in the world? Is it part of the U.S? Till now, people keep asking me such questions.
Since we established our embassy here, I think, we helped change that a lot. People are gradually becoming more aware about our country. At least, they have come to know Georgia is located in Eastern Europe.
Actually, Georgia is a small country, situated at the border of Asia and Europe. We are bounded to north by Russia, to the south by Turkey and Armenia, and to the southeast by Azerbaijan. As a small country, sometimes people find it difficult to identify us.
We declared our independence in 1918, after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Unfortunately this independence didn’t last long. We were an independent country only for three years. Because the country was attacked and defeated by the Russian Army in 1921. Along with Armenia and Azerbaijan, we were integrated into the Trans-Caucasian SFSR during World War II.
As the war ended, Georgia continued to suffer through decades of Communist rule and suppression. For 70 years, we were under communist regime by Russia before finally declaring independence from Russia in 1991 due to the fall of Soviet Union
As the Soviet Union continued to collapse, Georgians held their first elections, and at the end of 1991, a civil war began, after a brutal coup d’état against the president-elect, and lasted until 1995. After we got the independence, it took a long time for us to be finally recognized by international community.
What is the most important trade partnership between Georgia and Indonesia?
If we talk about trade, Indonesia is a country of big numbers and big opportunity. It means, our trade relationship has enormous untapped potential. We know that Indonesia is looking for export to make Indonesian products more competitive and accessible to the market.
Georgian market is not big. But Georgia’s liberal trade regimes provide investors with a favorable opportunity to not only access the country’s 3.7 million population, but the wider region’s markets, as a direct result of the absence of customs and import tariffs.
To date, Georgia has signed FTAs with our CIS countries that include Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, as well as its neighbors, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Georgia is considered as a business-oriented country considering the impressive progress we have made in improving business climate. We are liberal and promote a free trade market oriented economic policy, strengthened by rules of law. We have also artnered with international organizations. So, those factors can also benefit Indonesia as they start to trade with us.
What are some of the success stories of trade and development between Georgia and Indonesia so far?
There are success stories. We have some Indonesian goods sold in Georgian market, like coffee, furniture, and handicraft. When I visited Georgia a few months ago, I saw some Indonesian shops who were selling furniture and handicrafts from Bali. Georgian people are quite familiar with Indonesian craft. I think, there are tons of opportunities for furniture export trade between the two countries.
At the same time, as an ambassador, I need to promote Georgian products to boost Georgia exports. We do a lot of efforts to facilitate the access of products from Georgia. By introducing our export products, at the same time we can promote our country, like culture and history. And then people will start to talk and get interested in Georgia.
Could you tell us some well-known companies or brands from Georgia that we may have here?
We don’t have a big company, because we have a small economy, small market. But having more companies, it’s something we are looking forward to. Some well-known products form Georgia are mineral waters, fresh agriculture produce, as well as wines. For example, Borjomi mineral is Georgia’s best-known mineral water brand which is sold in Russia, Saudi Arabia, and some other parts in the world.
For us, Indonesia is one of the largest markets. It will be a significant point for our country’s economy and agricultural development to promote Georgian product for export to this market. But I think it’s not easy.
For me, in order to keep your country’s economy growing, you should be open to imported products. Because imports might help to bring investment to the country.
In terms of culture and history, how strong is the partnership between the two countries? What kind of cultural activities have you held in Indonesia?
We have lots of similarities between Georgia and Indonesia, except the size. Imagine that the capital of Indonesia is three times bigger than Georgia. Our country is comparable to a city like Sulawesi. The population is about 3.7 million.
Both Indonesia and Georgia are inhabited by lots of native tribes and ethnicities. Like Indonesia, Georgia is well-known as a multicultural country, with different religious beliefs and ethnic populations living together. Georgia has always been a land of multiple faiths; Judaism, Islam, Christian Orthodoxy, and Paganism, all have a long and unique history of coexistence. They all coexist peacefully.
Georgia’s culture is unique. Historically, Georgians have a unique cultural identity. Georgian’s ancient historical roots date back thousands of years, lending the country a unique national heritage and culture that will excite any cultural enthusiast.
Georgia’s monumental architecture, unique traditional music and colorful dances, cinema, opera, art, cuisine, wine, and cheese, all of them give the country and its citizens a strong sense of national identity.
Georgian alphabets are also unique. There are just 14 independent scripts in the world and Georgian is one of them. Georgia’s official language is Georgian, which is only spoken by the population. Some Georgians also speak Russian and Armenian. But the new generation speaks less Russian after we got the independence.
The country is home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, namely Bagrati Cathedral and Gelati Monastery, Mitskheta Historical Monuments, and Upper Svaneti Caucasus mountains, villages and tower houses.
How do you promote Georgia to Indonesian tourists?
We are always promoting our country by organizing some activities, such as wine and food festivals, music events, as well as film screening. In 2015, Georgia Embassy participated in Java Jazz Festival. We aim to attract more Indonesians to visit Georgia. The number of Indonesian tourists to Georgia rose 130% in 2016 compared with previous year. We know the visitors are not in thousands. But for a small country like Georgia, it’s quite impressive. In total, in 2015, we had 7 million tourists, and in 2016 we had 11 million tourists visiting Georgia.
Do you have any advice what to do in Georgia for first-time traveler?
Georgia is unique by nature, by landscape, summer or winter. We have so many things to offer in such a small country. You can walk through Tbilisi’s Old Town and experience the stunning architecture and European cafe-style culture.
I think, many Indonesians would like what they can’t experience here. For example, it doesn’t snow in Indonesia. So, you can go to ski at the Caucasus mountain, Europe’s highest mountain range. And for true adventure, try heli-skiing.
In the afternoon, you can relax at the Black Sea coast. From mountain to the sea, it takes you only 1 hour. So, you go to ski, and one hour later you can sunbath.
Do you enjoy Indonesian foods?
I cannot say I’m fine with them. Because I am not too much of a spicy eater. Though in Georgia too, we have spicy food. Georgia basically is divided into two parts. Cuisine in the west part of Georgia includes spicy stuff. And I come from the east part, which is not spicy at all.
After 4 years of living here, I’m getting better. I can adapt to the Indonesian food. However, what often happens to me is when I order food in a restaurant, I tell them “Please make it less spicy?” But they bring me more spicy food. I don’t know why. They tell me it’s not spicy. For them it’s not spicy, for me it’s spicy.
Anyway, I like soups very much because they are not spicy. Sometime, I eat Rendang too.
Living in Indonesia, what do u miss about your country, Georgia?
First, I miss my friends. Yes, my Georgians friends. Not all of them can come here. Second, Georgian food. You know, good food is all the sweeter when shared with good friends. Those kind of things. Sometimes, those kind of things trigger the feeling of homesickness.
Edited by Priyanka Sekhawat