The FINANCIAL -- Interview with Hubert Knirsch, Ambassador of Germany to Georgia
Q. What was your very first impression of Georgia?
A. My very first impression was the conviviality of Georgia – its wonderful food and culture of dining. I was here for a conference and we were invited by the Foreign Minister to a mountaintop restaurant and it was just overwhelming to see the table laid out with Georgian appetizers, it was a fantastic evening. That was my very first impression, when I was still working in the Moscow Embassy.
Q. What surprised you the most about Georgia?
A. Actually, two things have been surprising, and even better than I could have imagined. One is Georgians’ great taste for beautiful things and works of art. This you see not only in the capital, but also in the smaller towns. When driving around the country as tourists we discovered many works of art even in some of the less prosperous communities. People here are focused on beauty. And indeed, it is important to have a basis of beauty in a city, to show some esthetic aspiration and then to realize it gradually by renovating older buildings and constructing new ones in keeping with the style of the place. I find this a very interesting way of setting priorities.
The other thing that struck me was the great interest in Germany and eagerness to cooperate and communicate with Germany. I had expected it to be good in the first place, but but I was really amazed to find this enthusiasm for working with Germany in so many different areas – in official circles, business circles, when meeting students as well as school pupils around the country. Just about everybody tells about their own experiences and ideas when we talk about Germany and about cooperation. This is really fantastic to see.
Q. What is your favourite thing about living and working in Tbilisi?
A. One of my favourite things is that right from the place where we live we can walk to many places in the old town. From our house here in Avlabari we walk down the stairs, cross the bridge and we are right in the centre of Tbilisi already. It is nice to be able to walk a lot, to see people, see city life and not just drive by in a limousine. I enjoy this close contact with the city.
Q. What is the biggest challenge you have faced since becoming Ambassador?
A. It’s a huge challenge first to make time for all of the things I want to do, – there are so many interesting people I meet briefly and want to have longer conversations with. So the first challenge for me is to find the time. And the second challenge is to remember people when I meet them later on. However, Georgians are very generous and patient with me and I’m very happy about that!
Q. What has been the best moment of your career so far?
A. Coming to Georgia was definitely a very good moment. We came through the Dariali Gorge from Russia and were met by a Georgian police officer right at the border and then a colleague from the Foreign Ministry and colleagues of our embassy. This was a memorable moment. On the other hand, if you were to ask though about the very best moment, it came much earlier. It was in 1989, 30 years ago. We had refugees from the German Democratic Republic in our embassy in Poland, and it was a very difficult situation. At some point the East German government agreed and they were all allowed to go to West Germany through the eastern part. To see these people depart, all 800 of them finally boarding the train to go to the West, was a moment I will never forget.
Q. How would you describe the relationship between Germany and Georgia?
A. The German-Georgian relationship is very special. I’m often reminded of this by Georgians – that political partnership goes back to 1918, to a very difficult time, the last phase of World War I when Georgia became independent. And they also often remind me that this relationship was important once again when Georgia became independent for the second time and Germany came in a san early supporter. On this basis, over the years we have built excellent cooperation in many fields. One thing to highlight is development cooperation with so many projects on water and electricity supply, public services and now, lately, vocational training Another area is culture -just think of the fantastic presentation Georgia gave of itself as the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year. It really was an event that raised enthusiasm for Georgia, with its amazing history and culture, and I’m sure that, as a result, you will see still many more tourists coming to Georgia .
Q. Why would you encourage German companies to do business in Georgia?
A. I see that Germans who come to Georgia are very often so fascinated in the country that they want to start business here. Sometimes this holds true for big companies that invest in Georgia, but even more often for individual entrepreneurs who have experience for instance in the field of winemaking or agriculture. I hope that more German companies will come to Georgia. We would like to see more investments in the field of manufacturing – the real economy so to speak. The real strength of the German economy is less in real estate, finance, telecommunications, it is mostly in the productive industries, including services, and Georgia offers ample opportunities here.
Q. What are the main polices you expect to see increasing Georgian competitiveness in the region?
A. The Georgian government is preparing a strategy for exports. This is very important. Georgia as a country needs to do more to produce interesting products for the wider international market, including the EU market. We are working together with the EU to help the Georgian government to realize this export strategy. The apparel industry, processed high-value foodstuffs but also IT services come to mind as sectors were we could work. Georgia is very rich and diverse in terms of its opportunities.
Q. What about the cultural relationship? What are your plans in this regard for the coming years?
A. We have just launched a month of the German language in Georgia together with the Austrian and Swiss embassies. The programme runs through May and June with many events, film and theatrical shows, lectures, and events for kids. And all this not only in Tbilisi but also in other cities. I think it’s a very rich programme and I hope it will find a wide audience.
I find it an honor that so many Georgians want to study German. In the school system, however, there are not enough teachers. I hope we can do something about this together with the Ministry of Education about, especially if the salaries of teachers rise in the future as is planned. It is necessary to attract people to the teaching profession.
Q. What about Georgian cuisine? Which dish has become your favourite?
A. Well, I liked Georgian cuisine even before we came to live in Georgia. In Moscow we found a lot of good Georgian restaurants and we liked to take our guests there. So from early on I’ve liked Georgian ‘pkhali’ and many other dishes. And I really like the natural wines being produced in Georgia. They are increasingly coming to German markets and some German winemakers have even started themselves to produce wine according to the traditional Georgian method, in a quevri..
Q. What prospects does Georgia have in regard to the hospitality business here?
A. The hospitality business is clearly developing, actually booming, in many regions of the country. The number of tourists is rising, especially from Germany and Western European countries. I think the further prospects are still great in terms of numbers and of revenues. The way for Georgia, as it seems to me, will be to focus on high value tourism, based on nature and culture and it is very important to preserve the cultural heritage and the natural beauty of Georgian landscapes. So it is crucial not to overdo constructions around tourism sites, such as Mestia, others in Svaneti, or Stepantsminda. Mountainous areas can be especially vulnerable in this regard. My experience is that you meet German tourists less on the beaches and in the casinos and mostly on the mountain trails and in the l museum. They are attracted precisely by what makes Georgia unique - and I very much hope that these treasures will be preserved for all future generations.
By Eva Bolkvadze