Ambassador Helene SAND ANDRESEN: “No doubt that Georgia is part of the European family”

18.06.2021 (Caucasian Journal). We are honoured to interview Her Excellency Helene SAND ANDRESEN, Ambassador of Norway to Georgia and Ambassador-Designate of Norway to Armenia.

Read the Georgian version here.

Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of CJ:  Your Excellency, welcome to Caucasian Journal, I wish to thank you for attention to our readers. Let me start with something basic. You are the first head of the first Royal Norwegian Embassy in Tbilisi. Before you arrived here, Norway did not have an embassy in this country. How does it feel to find oneself in such a situation, when you did not have even an embassy building and had literally to create everything from scratch?

Helene SAND ANDRESEN: To be in such a situation is a wonderful challenge – sometimes a little daunting. The opportunity to create a new embassy from scratch is rare, so it is an honour to be entrusted with such a task.  Building a whole new team is a great privilege. Setting up a new mission, you need vision, drive, and not least flexibility and a good dose of patience. It’s a great learning process. Perhaps the hardest thing has been striking the right balance between practical tasks and administrative issues on the one hand, and building our network on the other. It’s tempting to meet as many people as possible and make the right contacts, but at times, administration and logistics have had to take priority. And of course, we have had a lot of support along the way from Oslo, as well as from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia, for which I am most grateful.  

AK: On a political level, do you consider the opening of Norwegian embassy in Tbilisi as a significant step, and if yes, how should it be perceived?

HSA: It is absolutely significant. Norway was one of the first countries to recognize the First Georgian Republic (1918-1921). Our bilateral diplomatic ties were re-established in 1992, so next year we will mark the 30th anniversary.

Opening the Norwegian Embassy in Tbilisi is a result of the strengthening of our bilateral relations over time. It is a clear political signal of support to Georgia’s foreign policy choices of European and Euro-Atlantic integration. It recognizes that our relationship is based on common values, mutual interests and reciprocal wishes to grow our cooperation both bilaterally and in multilateral arenas. 

Norway was one of the first countries to recognize the First Georgian Republic (1918-1921)

AK: Your term in Tbilisi coincided with some quite turbulent times, in many ways. How would you summarize your impressions so far? Perhaps there are especially bright moments that you would like to share?

HSA: Yes, I would agree that it certainly has been an intensive political period since I arrived on 1 September 2019. There are many differences between the political discourses in Georgia and in Norway, and in the respective levels of political polarization. Of course, we should take into consideration that Georgia is still developing on its democratic path, and I see our role as being supportive of that endeavour. I very much appreciate the accessibility of politicians in Georgia, and the ease of establishing good working relationships in government, in parliament, in state institutions. Among bright moments, I would include the political agreements of 8 March 2020 and 19 April 2021. Another bright aspect for me is the strong and vibrant Georgian civil society, with whom the embassy works closely.

AK: Your Embassy represents Norway in both Georgia and Armenia, is that correct? They are quite different states in many ways. How would you outline which Norwegian or Nordic experiences might be especially relevant to our region?

We can offer lessons learnt on many levels – from building a stable democracy, the value of political compromises and coalition-building, the state’s responsibilities in securing human rights and equality, to issues like road safety and labour rights.

HSA: Due to the pandemic, I have not yet had the possibility to submit my letters of credence in Armenia. However, I hope that this will happen before the end of the year, as we are keen to take up responsibility for the bilateral relations with Armenia. I believe this will also strengthen our understanding of the regional situation in the South Caucasus. 

As for relevant Nordic experiences, I believe that we can offer lessons learnt on many levels – from building a stable democracy, the value of political compromises and coalition-building, the state’s responsibilities in securing human rights and equality for all citizens, to issues like road safety and labour rights. 

When the Baltic states regained their independence, they were supported by the Nordics sharing their experience and knowledge. Today, we see that the Nordic-Baltic partnership experience may also have something to offer Georgia and Armenia. 

The Norwegian experience in managing renewable energy resources, especially hydropower, can be useful to Georgia. 

There are other areas where we can learn and grow together. Both Georgia and Norway have spectacular nature, which draws a lot of tourists. We need better protection and conservation of such treasure to make sure it can be enjoyed not only by the current generations, but in the future too. 

As our cities grow, we need to make them more livable and sustainable, not the least from the green perspective. Oslo and other Nordic cities have gained valuable experiences in this area over the last years. These experiences may be useful to advance a green mindset in Tbilisi and other Georgian cities. 

When the Baltic states regained independence, they were supported by the Nordics... Today, we see that Nordic-Baltic partnership experience may also have something to offer Georgia and Armenia

AK: Perhaps there are any concrete cooperation projects - current or planned – which you would like to mention?

HSA: I would love to talk at length about all of our development projects, but that would take many pages. Let me try to summarize. The bilateral project portfolio is over 6 million euro per year. It includes experience sharing on renewable energy; inclusive education; women’s economic empowerment and participation; combatting corruption; human rights, democracy and rule of law; protection of cultural heritage and maps for sustainable development. Norway is the largest contributor to the Council of Europe Action Plan in Georgia. 

In addition, Georgia is a partner in 11 large regional projects (which cover Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia and sometimes also Central Asia) such as: cooperation in higher education; strengthening independent quality media; civil society partnerships; strengthening local governance - which we do in partnership with Estonia. Furthermore: supporting the work of the OSCE including election observation and national minorities; combatting human trafficking and supporting the rights of migrants; and co-funding the Riga School of Graduate Law. 

In all our development cooperation we focus on results. We need to ensure that projects are targeted, do not overlap and that they complement what other donors are doing; that local partners have the necessary resources for implementation and absorption capacity, and that we are contributing to the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development goals. 

In addition to development programmes, I would also like to mention our defence cooperation. Under NATO/SNGP, Norway has led the international team at JTEC (Joint Training and Evaluation Centre) since the beginning. We also have quite broad bilateral defence cooperation. [Read more about Norway-Georgia defense cooperation here – CJ] 

AK: At Caucasian Journal, we believe that the mass media should not only tell some news or information, but help to make things better. We think it is important to bring the world’s most successful reform experiences and best practices closer to our region’s readers, and hopefully to integrate them into the political agenda. A lot of such best experience can be found in Norway and other Nordic countries, and I wish to thank your Embassy for your support in sharing the Nordic expertise with our readers. From the viewpoint a Norwegian living in Georgia, what can be improved in the media field, to bridge the information “gap”, and make our countries better known to each other?

HSA: First, let me congratulate you on the way in which Caucasian Journal is sharing best practices from Nordic and Baltic countries. I’m impressed with the choice of topics and the quality of the stories you tell, and I have enjoyed reading them. CJ is making an important contribution in bridging the information gap, and making our countries better known to one another. 

 Let me congratulate you on the way in which Caucasian Journal is sharing best practices from Nordic and Baltic countries. I’m impressed with choice of topics and quality of stories you tell.

Our embassies play a key role in the information sphere, and the Georgian Embassy in Oslo is doing a very good job in promoting Georgia in Norway. We have been devoting more time during the past year to information and communications work at the Norwegian Embassy in Tbilisi as well, especially through social media, and we plan to increase our efforts. 

Before the pandemic, we saw a marked increase in Norwegian interest in and knowledge about Georgia, as the numbers of tourists were going up from year to year and more was being written about Georgia in the Norwegian press. When we return to normal and international travel becomes possible again, I hope to see this trend pick up. 

In terms of exchange programmes, a number of Georgian students go to Norway to study each year, some of them under our hydropower development cooperation. There are also Norwegian students coming to Georgia, for instance under our cooperation in public health research. I believe this type of exchange of young, bright people is an investment in the future of Georgian-Norwegian relations.  

AK: Many thanks for kind words about our journal’s work. And a connected question – for Norwegians, what might be the most attractive about our region?

HSA: If we are talking about tourism, Georgia has so much to offer which my colleagues and I really enjoy – the diversity of nature, the beauty of the landscapes, the rich history, the culture, warm and welcoming hospitality, the regional cuisines, the variety of wines. We are on a journey of discovery. 

In terms of business and trade, I believe Georgia is attractive to Norwegian investors in fields such as green seafood, renewable energy and agriculture.

Our bilateral trade is at a low volume, but that means the only way is up! Norway is party to the EFTA free trade agreement with Georgia, and I see a lot of potential for growth in bilateral trade here, as Georgian producers are slowly but steadily adapting to the European market. Increasing business ties between our countries is something we work on with the Georgian-Norwegian Chamber of Commerce A fair business playing field with impartial, transparent and accessible state institutions - especially the justice system - is crucial for investor confidence. We observe progress in certain areas, but it is essential to achieve progress across-the-board.

AK: I have a traditional question which is often rather useless when talking to the diplomats, but sometimes it brings interesting results. Will try anyway: Is there anything that you wish to change in our countries themselves, or in bilateral cooperation?

HSA: My goal is to see our bilateral relationship grow and flourish, in every sphere. There are many areas where there is scope to do more. Earlier, I mentioned trade and business. I would also add tourism, culture, higher education, alignment with EU standards and legislation (as a non-EU member that is nevertheless very closely associated with the EU, Norway has a lot of experience in this field) – and new fields, like marine pollution and sustainable management of oceans. 

In the multilateral arena, I believe it is important for small, open and democratic countries like Georgia and Norway, that know the value of international law, to work together to uphold a rules-based international order. 

Inside our countries, I believe we need to continue to strive for democratic, fair, inclusive and equitable societies, and to keep up with the “green shift” to more sustainable and environmentally sound economic practices.

AK: If you would like to share anything else with our viewers and readers, the floor is yours for any free comments.

HSA: On a personal note, I would say that I feel very fortunate to be posted to Georgia, with whom we enjoy an excellent bilateral relationship, in a very dynamic time. As a child, I visited Tbilisi, Mtskheta and Jvari Monastery on a school trip to the South Caucasus in 1979. At the end of the 80s I came back, when as I student I had a summer job accompanying groups of Norwegian tourists to the Soviet Union. Returning to Georgia as a tourist myself in 2002 and 2009, before coming to work here in 2019, I have seen snapshots of the country’s development over the past 40-odd years. Together, these snapshots form my own “home movie” of the amazing evolution of the country, the resilience of its people through hard times – and leave no doubt that Georgia is part of the European family.

Following Knut Hamsun’s visit to the Caucasus in 1899, he wrote a marvelous travelogue throbbing with impressions of nature, called “In Wonderland” (1903). I think this is the strongest association many Norwegians have with Georgia, and it is what draws most Norwegian visitors. The Embassy staff and their families are certainly smitten by Georgian landscapes too. Last year, I had a wonderful trip to Racha, where I could admire the nature and taste its bounty – but equally important, talk to people at a local level, learn about life in remote rural areas. Such travels are crucial to understanding better the country and the aspirations of its people. There is so much more to see and to learn, and my colleagues and I look forward to discovering more of your marvelous country. This will also help us to identify new areas of cooperation and relation-building. 

AK: Thank you very much for excellent interview!

Read the Georgian language version here

Caucasian Journal
 appreciates kind support of Royal Norwegian Embassy in Tbilisi in preparation of this interview.

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