Ambassador Ran GIDOR: "We’ve been spending too much time toasting each other"

13.06.2020 (Caucasian JournalToday Caucasian Journal has the honour to talk with the newly appointed Israeli ambassador to Georgia, Mr. Ran GIDOR. His term in Tbilisi started last January. 

Mr. Gidor is not a newcomer in Georgia: Being a career diplomat, he was appointed as deputy ambassador in Tbilisi (accredited to Georgia and Armenia) back in 1997. His subsequent experience included positions of Cultural and Academic attaché in Beijing, Political Counsellor in London, Director of UN Political Affairs Department, and Ambassador to Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Congo and Gabon.

Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of Caucasian Journal: Your Excellency, welcome to Caucasian Journal, we thank you for attention to our readers. I know it became commonplace to talk about the coronavirus, but in your case I cannot help asking: How does it feel to start an Ambassador’s term in an unprecedented lockdown? I understand that just weeks after arrival in Tbilisi you found yourself isolated at home and unable to travel, being cut from essential parts of every diplomat’s work.

Ran GIDOR: Thank you, Alexander, for the opportunity to address your readers. Yes, you’re absolutely right, COVID-19 has “turned the tables” (so to speak…) on all our original work plans for 2020 and forced us to cancel virtually every major project in the pipeline. However, now we’re ‘regrouping’ and learning how to implement some new ideas in innovative and unconventional ways. As always, what starts as a threat or a disaster – can be turned into an opportunity, if we’re prepared to rise to the challenge.

AK: You are familiar with Georgia and Armenia, as you have worked in this region in 1990-s. However, the world was quite different at that time. I guess Israel has not changed as much as Georgia or Armenia, but I think it is changing as well, adapting to new challenges. So, what about the South Caucasus vis-à-vis Israel: What is new and what is dejavu?

Georgia’s progress in the past two decades has been nothing short of astonishing!

RG: Our embassy is no longer accredited to Armenia, so I will comment only on Georgia. I had arrived here back in January with vivid impressions of my time in Tbilisi in the late 90s – only to realize that the country had changed almost beyond recognition. Georgia is no longer lagging behind but rather moving ahead with astonishing speed. When one considers the impressive international rankings of Georgia in terms of investment-conducive business environment, institutional corruption or e-governance, then it’s clear that the country has not only ‘caught up’ but, in fact, has taken a lead. Clearly, there’s still a lot of ground to cover and much more remains to achieve. Also, there have been (inevitably) some false starts and mistaken decisions, but all in all: Georgia’s progress in the past 2 decades has been nothing short of astonishing!

AK: Thank you, nice to hear this. Allow me a connected, but more general question. You have much wider professional experience now, than in 1990-s. How would you summarize your vision of the world situation: Now and 20+ years ago?

I no longer believe in a clear-cut division of the world into ‘goodies & baddies’. Governments and nations are ultimately like individuals, in the sense that they’re ultimately subjective, self-serving and utterly convinced of their own narrative.

RG: That’s a very good question – but also one which is very difficult to answer. I think my world view is now much more nuanced and cynical – but also more idealistic (and please forgive the apparent contradiction). On the one hand, I no longer believe in a clear-cut division of the world into ‘goodies & baddies’. Governments and nations are ultimately like individuals, in the sense that they’re ultimately subjective, self-serving and utterly convinced of their own narrative. We, diplomats, sometimes labour under the illusion that if we only came up with the ‘winning argument’ – then the other side would be swayed over and come round to our point of view. That almost never happens for the simple reason that there’s almost never one objective narrative or truth. Therefore, when we analyze the current global rivalries (e.g. US & China, North & South Korea, Ukraine & Russia, India & Pakistan etc.) – we should try and identify the respective interests and narratives, rather than struggle to find out the “all elusive truth”. That, needless to say, also applies to the numerous conflicts raging around the Middle East.

AK: You have once outlined very correctly that the economic crisis is much worse than the health crisis. Georgian-Israeli relations are quite good, the tourist influx has been growing, but recent examples of successful business projects are not so many (correct me if I’m wrong). Why is that so, in your view? What should be done to improve the investing climate?

The wonderful tradition of 26 years of friendship has now become a bit of a hindrance. We’ve been spending too much time toasting each other, cutting ribbons and attending ceremonies, and not enough time in injecting our relations with modern, sophisticated, 21-st century type of content.

RG: Unfortunately, it’s true that the levels of bilateral trade (e.g. $42 million in 2019) and investment are only a fraction of the real potential and certainly don’t reflect the excellent bilateral relations. Israeli citizens of Georgian descent were the first ones to come back and invest their money in Georgia already in the early 1990s – long before any other foreign investors. However, the wonderful tradition of 26 years of friendship – of which we’re extremely proud and grateful – has now become a bit of a hindrance. We’ve been spending too much time toasting each other, cutting ribbons and attending ceremonies, and not enough time in injecting our bilateral relations with modern, sophisticated, 21-st century type of content. I should also point out that this state of affairs is not unique to Israel. Most global trade ‘giants’ (e.g. US, Japan, Germany, India, China) have been registering surprisingly low levels of investment & bilateral trade vis-à-vis Georgia, despite all the free trade agreements, multiplication of tax benefits and facilitation of regulatory environment. Georgia has been doing extremely well – but it still punches way below its weight.

AK: We heard the excellent news about upcoming inauguration of Israel-Georgian bilateral Chamber of Commerce. We welcome this much-awaited development, and would be glad to contribute into information support of your Chamber’s initiatives. What new opportunities will it offer to Georgian and Israeli businesspeople?

RG: Indeed, this is the single most important development on the bilateral level in recent years. For the first time in 3 decades there will be a modern, sophisticated, professional organization dedicated to the promotion of bilateral trade and investment. The process of launching the CoC has been protracted and painstakingly detailed, as it is subject to the strictest criteria, monitoring and supervision by all the relevant public bodies in Israel. Naturally, everything had to be certified to be overboard, transparent and legitimate, and the CoC had – and did – win the endorsement of the Israeli Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Economy, as well as the Georgian Foreign Ministry and the Israeli Federation of Chambers of Commerce. The CoC’s board will include 20 directors, including some of Israel’s most prominent lawyers, investors and business tycoons, as well as former government ministers. The CoC is totally independent from the embassy but, of course, we’ll be working jointly and cooperating on numerous projects. We hope to launch the Tbilisi office in the autumn.

AK: I am sure your Embassy and your government institutions such as MASHAV are planning many exchanges and other activities in various spheres, where our citizens may participate. If you would like to outline any specific projects, we would be very interested.

RG: MASHAV (Israel’s International Development & Cooperation Agency) has been active in Georgia since the early 1990s and has already trained more than 1,500 Georgian women and men in a broad range of disciplines, including: agriculture, irrigation, women’s empowerment, innovation & entrepreneurship, public health, special-needs education and much more. COVID-19 has forced us to shift to online training, which on the one hand is disadvantageous – as the trainees and students can’t physically go to Israel and gain practical experience in the relevant subject matter. On the other hand, the new format is much cheaper and more flexible, and allows us to offer training opportunities to a much wider public. In the near future we’re planning to focus our MASHAV activities in Georgia on innovation & entrepreneurship and cooperate with GITA and several local incubators and accelerators. The governing philosophy behind it is quite simple: How to take an idea and turn it into a revenue-generating business. We’ve already implemented 2 highly effective online seminars in the past 2 weeks alone, and we hope to augment this part of our activity even further. Naturally, we will also continue our rich cooperation with Georgian partners on agriculture, special needs education and other topics.

AK: I have a close friend in Israel, who once toured Georgia and became a great fan of this country. She lives in a Kibbutz, and this spring she hoped to visit Georgia again, together with a large group of coworkers whom she managed to recruit. Unfortunately this dream could not come true, but I was glad to know that the Israeli travel agency managed to compensate 99% of money which was already paid for the group tour. Still, somebody has to pay for the losses in the end. Could you tell how is Israel helping its businesses, which were hit by COVID?

RG: The Israeli government (just like all governments around the world) is struggling to keep the economy going in the aftermath of COVID-19. The Finance Ministry is planning to spend NIS 80 billion (USD 22.3 billion), equal to 6% of GDP for that purpose. The extra spending will cause the budget deficit to balloon to 10% of gross domestic product, from about 3.5% and raise the ratio of debt to GDP to 75% from about 60%. The economic program contained four elements:

1). A plan that includes 10 billion shekels in extra health care spending.
2). About 20 billion shekels for a safety net for salaried workers and the self-employed, of which 17 billion is slated for jobless benefits.
3). For small, medium-sized and large businesses - 32 billion shekels in aid.
4). About 8 billion shekels to boost the economy after the crisis eases up.

AK: Very substantial figures indeed. And speaking about tourism, what must be done – both here and in your country – to stimulate its further growth between our countries?

RG: Last year more than 200,000 Israelis arrived in Georgia, which represent the single biggest group of foreign tourists from any country that wasn’t part of the USSR or is bordering Georgia. During the height of the tourism season we’ve had no less than 42 weekly direct flights. This year, if not for the coronavirus, we would have had about 300,000 Israeli tourists here. The bottom line is that there’s not all that much that the Georgian tourism authorities need to do in order to encourage Israelis to visit Georgia, as your country is already considered a highly favourite destination. For Israeli tourists – Georgia is close (only 2.5 hours away), cheap and – most importantly – safe and friendly. Once the epidemiological situation allows us to re-establish direct flights and tourism links – Israelis will be flooding back to their beloved Georgia.

For Israeli tourists  Georgia is close, cheap and – most importantly – safe and friendly. Once the epidemiological situation allows us to re-establish direct flights, Israelis will be flooding back to their beloved Georgia

AK: Our nations have very long histories of their own. In addition, there are separate history and tradition of Jews living in Georgia, and of Georgian community living in Israel. In result, there is an endless list of cultural things to be shared, and to enrich each other. If you have any personal cultural favorites, please share with us. This could be arts, history, literature, or, perhaps, a favorite Jewish – or Georgian? - food that you can cook…

RG: There’s simply not enough space to list and enumerate all my favourite examples of Georgian art and culture. Personally, I’m a huge fan of classical music, so musicians like Lisa Batiashvili (whom I’ve been fortunate enough to hear in Tel Aviv, playing Prokofiev with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra), Khatia Buniatishvili, Alexander Korsantia, Elisso Bolkavadze – are all inspiring. I’ve also been fortunate enough to meet personally the ‘giants’ like the bass singer Paata Burchuladze, the legendary prima ballerina Nina Ananiashvili, and the world famous Georgian traditional dancer Nino Sukhishvili. In terms of the younger generation of musicians (not necessarily classical), I admire Katie Melua and, most recently, – also the young band ‘KayaKata’. I also enjoy very much young female writers (the ones whose work has been translated into English), who write about contemporary social issues.

AK: That's impressive! Allow me to thank you for making an excellent interview, and hope to see you and your colleagues again soon.

This article was re-published by :
ICC Georgia republished Caucasian Journal's interview with Ambassador Ran Gidor in its newsletter.

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