British Ambassador: I Am Leaving Georgia With a Wonderful Sense of Fulfilment - Diplomat Magazine
Over the last four years, the collaboration between the governments of the United Kingdom and Georgia has reached laudable heights thanks to the strategic leadership of Mr. Justin McKenzie Smith, the outgoing Ambassador of Britain to Georgia. In this interview, Diplomat Magazine takes a stroll down memory lane with the accomplished Diplomat.
You came to Tbilisi as an ambassador in 2016. Coming here, you already knew the country and the region well. What was unexpected for you?
Yes, I was lucky to have visited Georgia before. That was the reason I was honoured and delighted to be appointed Ambassador. But the experience of these last four years has been very different. What has struck me most is the talent, creativity and energy of Georgia’s young people. I have found this in Tbilisi and on my visits across the country. Georgia’s future is in very good hands.
With what feelings are you leaving Georgia? Did you have something in your plans that you failed to implement for various reasons? How COVID-19 pandemic affected them?
My family and I are leaving Georgia with a wonderful sense of fulfilment. We have been so lucky to spend four unforgettable years here. We can’t help also feeling some sadness as we leave our friends, our home and our way of life. Covid-19 has, of course, affected some plans. I am sorry not to have been able to say goodbye in person to many people. I was able to start travelling again within Georgia in recent weeks, visiting the Anglo-Georgian Archaeological Expedition at Nokalakevi and a UK-backed conservation project on the mighty river Rioni. I didn’t make it to Tusheti, as I hoped. However, this is one of many, many reasons why I know we will come back to Georgia.
How do you assess bilateral relations since the outbreak, what are the challenges to trade and what were the main complaints from British businesses?
The friendship between Georgia and the UK has deep roots and these have remained strong during the pandemic. There have been online contacts between the governments and we are preparing for the next Wardrop Strategic Dialogue in September. Georgia’s response to the pandemic has been genuinely admired in the UK and I am pleased that we have been able to support those efforts in a number of ways. I feel confident that the growing British business interest in Georgia we saw before the pandemic will continue. We are receiving a steady stream of enquiries in the Embassy from UK companies. The new UK-Georgia Strategic Partnership & Cooperation Agreement, which includes a comprehensive free trade agreement, gives us an ideal framework to strengthen trade links.
What are your thoughts on the upcoming elections in Georgia? How do you assess the whole process starting from consultations to the current constitutional amendments?
The constitutional changes agreed in June are an historic achievement. The question of proportional elections has been on the agenda in Georgia for many years. I give credit to the parties and facilitators who agreed to take this step forward. Most of all, I congratulate the Georgian people for their determination to pursue a fair and representative democratic system. I hope elections this autumn will be calm, transparent and in line with the international standards we all aspire to. I particularly hope Georgia will see more women candidates taking part in the elections and entering Parliament. The election of five women parliamentarians to the first Constituent Assembly in 1919 is an inspirational moment in Georgian history. In 2020, Georgia’s political leaders can give voters the opportunity to choose a Parliament that is more representative of all voices in society.
Since your mission here, you have been to many cities, large and small. What do you like most in Georgia? What will you take away with you?
I have been lucky to travel to many parts of this beautiful country, although there are still many places I hope to visit or return to one day. The “Pop-Up” British Embassies we ran as part of our UK Season in Georgia in 2019 and my visits to our English language clubs across the country have been unforgettable. However, in truth, anywhere I am sitting at a table with friends, fresh bread, Georgian food and Qvevri wine, I am happy.
Will you advise your friends to come to Georgia? And where would you suggest that they should visit?
Yes, definitely. I was so pleased when direct flights between the UK and Georgia restarted in 2017 and to see the numbers of British visitors growing each year. I am absolutely sure that trend will continue as soon as international travel becomes more possible again. It has been a joy to see the magical effect that Georgia has had on our friends when they have visited for the first time. There are so many places to recommend to future visitors. Having visited Racha myself for the first time in June, it will certainly be on my list of recommendations.
To the next ambassador who will arrive soon, what would be your first advice to him?
Three pieces of advice. First, that he has a brilliant team at the British Embassy in Tbilisi. Second, that there are real opportunities and goodwill to strengthen the UK-Georgia friendship further. And lastly, that he has one of the best jobs in the world!