An interview with the Norwegian ambassador to Georgia

Norwegian achievements in Georgia

Photo: Business Media Georgia
In October 2021, Helene Sand Andresen was appointed Norwegian ambassador to Georgia and non-resident ambassador to Armenia.

Tamta Jijavadze
Business Media Georgia

Diplomatic relations between Georgia and Norway were started back in 1918. After the restoration of Georgia’s independence, relations were officially renewed in 1992, although Norway did not have an embassy in Georgia until 2019. For about four years, the Norwegian embassy and the first accredited ambassador of Norway to Georgia have been taking care of the economic and cultural ties between the two countries. Forbes Georgia interviewed Norwegian diplomat Helene Sand Andresen, who talks about the achievements and potential she sees in Georgia.

You are the first Norwegian ambassador to Georgia since the Norwegian embassy was opened in Georgia. What are your main results till now?

First of all, let me underline that it is a great honor for me to be the first resident ambassador of Norway to Georgia. Our bilateral relations have been developing steadily for over 30 years, and the establishment of a resident embassy in Tbilisi in 2019 was a manifestation of our close ties. The visit of Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Anniken Huitfeldt to Tbilisi in October 2022 and the official opening ceremony of the embassy was certainly a high point in the continued strengthening of bilateral relations.

My first years here as ambassador have been dedicated to getting the embassy up and running. This was the main task given to me by our government and the leadership of our Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as I left Oslo for Georgia. Establishing an embassy has many aspects to it. From the technical and administrative side, it has entailed overseeing the building of our brand-new office space. Nearly four years after we set foot in Georgia, I am happy to say that we are now well established in a beautiful embassy on Freedom Square, in the heart of Tbilisi.

One of the achievements of which I am most proud is the recruitment and training of our brilliant embassy team. In total, we are three Norwegian diplomats and five Georgian colleagues. The interviewing processes for Georgian staff were quite demanding for the applicants. We had many strong candidates, and those who made it through are the best of the best. For me personally, coming to work and solving tasks together as a team is a daily highlight.

A key aspect of our first years here has been to grow our network. This has also been one of our embassy’s successes. We have made very good contacts with the government, the parliament and other state and independent institutions, as well as with civil society organizations and other like-minded embassies. This is a crucial aspect for any embassy

Another important milestone was reached in October 2021, when the embassy in Tbilisi took over responsibility for bilateral relations between Armenia and Norway. As a result, these relations have become stronger, our network in Armenia is growing, and I would say it has also deepened our regional perspective and understanding.

Our first years here were affected by global events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the Afghanistan evacuation, and Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine. However, working on handling the consequences of these developments also brought us into even closer cooperation with the government of Georgia, the civil society, and other partners.

Economic empowerment of women is one of the issues you are actively working on. Norway is one of the leaders in terms of gender quotas in business and public sector. How would you assess the current situation in Georgia in this regard?

I see positive developments in Georgia on gender equality and women’s empowerment. Through our work with women’s rights and economic empowerment, I have had the pleasure of traveling around the country and of meeting dozens of women entrepreneurs and other local change-makers. It has been an inspiration for me to talk with these forward-looking and enthusiastic women. When meeting young Georgians, I also get a sense that they have a natural, positive view on gender equality and how it is important – not only for the women of Georgia, but for the country as a whole.

I am also happy to see positive changes in the business sector. A good number of Georgian companies have signed up to Women’s Empowerment Principles, a set of principles offering guidance to business on how to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment in the workplace, marketplace, and community. These companies are making positive changes in the Georgian business sphere, and I hope that more will follow suit.

Having said this, challenges still remain. Much more has to be done to increase the percentage of women in leading roles in society and government. For example, although the number of women parliamentarians is on the rise, there are still very few women ministers. How can you ensure that major decisions are democratic, representative, and well founded, if the views of half of the population —the women—are not sufficiently taken into account? Having more women in leadership, in positions of power, will ensure that young Georgian women and girls have role models to look up to. This will contribute to new generations of ambitious, strong women who can push for an even better future for Georgia, and for inspiration, there are numerous examples of successful women leaders from Georgian history.

Norway is sometimes hailed as a model of gender equality. I do not think this is fully deserved, as we are still far from being able to say “mission accomplished,” but if I am to name one thing that we did successfully, it was perhaps the reform of our social benefits system that enabled more women to enter the labor market. This included measures like affordable day care for children and generous parental leaves for mothers and fathers. It is extremely interesting that some of our most renowned economists have calculated that the macroeconomic gain from having a large women workforce is actually greater than the gain from our oil and gas revenues. A clear takeaway from the Norwegian experience is that gender equality should be a goal for everyone who wishes their country to succeed.

What do you see as the main challenge of Georgia? What hinders its development?

Georgia, as a country that restored its independence only three decades ago, after the fall of the Soviet Union, has made huge strides toward a better future. Conversing with Georgians who remember the Soviet times, or the hardships of the 1990s, you immediately understand how far the country has come in a relatively short period of time. I think all successive Georgian governments since independence deserve their fair share of credit for this.

Speaking about Georgia’s further development, I see some challenges. Reforms related to some of the pillars of sustainable democracy, such as independent institutions, independent judiciary, and protection of the rights of minorities, including that of sexual minorities, have unfortunately been lagging behind. These are fundamental areas that create trust among the population toward their government and institutions, and by extension, build strong and resilient democratic societies.

There are also persistent challenges in the realm of political culture. I have noticed that debates in Georgia tend to be more about personalities than about political programs, leading to harsh rhetoric and undue polarization. Of course, any democratic society must be able to handle a certain degree of division; that is the strength and the beauty of a well-established democracy. But when debates drown out political visions on how to solve national issues, it erodes the trust that I mentioned previously. In the end, it creates a sense of disillusionment and hopelessness among people.

In terms of the economy, I see the Georgian institutions performing quite well. The macroeconomic situation has been impressive since the last pandemic lockdowns were lifted. The National Bank of Georgia has done a great job in navigating a very complicated economic reality since Russia’s renewed aggression against Ukraine. And we certainly would like to see these good efforts continue. At the same time, despite steady economic growth, many Georgians experience economic hardships, with rising inflation and a vulnerable private economy. Going forward, I believe that bridging this gap between the positive macroeconomic figures and increased vulnerability for many households will be a key task.

Georgia is in a favorable position in the region, with ports on the Black Sea and free trade agreements with the EU and EFTA. Investments in road, rail, and port infrastructure is a sound economic policy and should be continued. Georgia also needs to ramp up the realization of its green energy projects, starting with the hydropower industry, which has a huge potential. Combining this with stronger regional trade and connectivity, including through the Black Sea electricity transmission cable project, would create attractive economic opportunities for Georgia. It would strengthen the role of Georgia as a gateway to Europe for the South Caucasus, Central Asia, and beyond. Were Georgia to include both of its neighbors, Azerbaijan and Armenia in these endeavours, it could also make a potentially significant contribution to regional peace. It is important that Georgia pursues regional cooperation with an inclusive policy.

Speaking of the trade potential between the two countries, which products do you think Georgian producers should focus on for export to Norway? What might be interesting for the Norwegian market?

Norwegian consumers are a little bit risk averse, to be honest. They need some serious prompting to move from their preferences from more well-known European brands to relatively new, Georgian products. But interesting things are slowly happening in that respect. There are more and more Georgian wines available in our state wine monopoly, and our sommeliers are praising them. In the future, I think it would be a wonderful idea to have more of the Georgian small winemakers’ products available in Norway. Small family winemakers of Georgia are, in my opinion, often the most innovative and interesting ones, but they often seem to lack the apparatus or quantities to be able to successfully export to new markets.

The growing interest for Georgian wine in Norway is also driven by increasing Norwegian tourism to Georgia, which is slowly approaching its pre-pandemic levels. The Norwegians who have been here tasting the wines and food with spectacular views of the Caucasus mountains in the background will immediately begin asking for these products when they return to Norway. This is the real soft power of Georgia.

It would also be helpful if we could finally get a Georgian restaurant in Oslo. Norwegians love to dine, and I am sure that a Georgian restaurant would be an instant success. And it would definitely increase the interest for Georgian wine and food products, such as cheese, sunflower oil, dried fruits and nuts, and others. Of course, I am also saying this for more egoistic reasons. How will I survive without Georgian food when I return to Oslo?

How might Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, which owns shares in more than 9,000 companies worldwide, be interested in Georgia?

The Norwegian oil fund is managed by the Norges Bank Investment Management (NBIM), a politically independent body. They make their investments based purely on financial criteria and in line with a strict code of ethics. Investments are spread across various markets and currencies to achieve broad exposure to global growth and value creation, as well as to ensure risk diversification. About 70% of the fund is invested in equities, and the remaining 30% are fixed-income investments in bonds issued by government and securities issued by companies.

As for the question of the fund’s potential interest in Georgia, I find it hard to answer, given that the investment management is separate from politics and from the government, which I represent. My very general answer would be that Georgian authorities should ensure that the country has the most attractive, transparent, and ethically sound investment climate possible.

Which sectors might be attractive for Norwegian investors to invest in Georgia? What might be done to make them interested? In the first three quarters of the current year, nearly $1 million were invested from Norway. How do you think we can increase this number?

Norwegian investors are involved in Georgia in several areas, including in green energy (more specifically, hydropower), transport and shipping, and fish farming. These are the areas where there is strong interest and potential to increase cooperation and investments. We will continue to work to that end and will support potential and current investors, but in the end, it must be driven by the companies themselves.

The embassy works closely with the Georgian-Norwegian Business Council (GNCC), which is about to relaunch its activities after a hiatus during the pandemic period. Under their new chair, Ronny Solberg, who has a lengthy experience of doing business both in Georgia and Norway, the council will work to strengthen investments, trade, and other forms of economic cooperation between our countries. I am confident that we will see positive developments in this respect in the coming years.

It is also interesting how Georgia is perceived by Norwegian tourists?

I have to say I have never met a Norwegian who has traveled to Georgia and has not wanted to return. I call this the “Georgia fever,” owing to our famous writer, Knut Hamsun, who traveled in Georgia roughly 120 years ago and described experiencing a pleasant, dreamy “Caucasian fever” during his time here. I can see this fever in the eyes of many Norwegians who visit. It is important that they go back to their hometowns and act as impromptu influencers for tourism to Georgia. Interestingly, we have seen an increased interest from travel bloggers and podcasters who write and record about Georgia.

The typical Norwegian tourist to Georgia is usually one of two types. It is either a person who is interested beyond average in history, culture, food and wine, the one who comes to satisfy these interests as part of a specifically designed tour. Or it is a young nature-loving adventurer, who is traveling more independently, in search of mountains to climb or of slopes to ski. To make more Norwegian tourists interested, it would be helpful to have direct flights between our capitals. Of course, it will be up to the airlines to initiate and do this, but we are working together with relevant bodies in Norway and Georgia to facilitate the process – so that the option is open from the regulatory side when a company decides to go for it.

As a diplomat, I also want to add that tourism and travel between our countries leads to more people-to-people contact, which further strengthens the basis for our bilateral diplomatic ties and cooperation.

In your opinion, how can economic ties between the two countries be strengthened?

In general, our governments, the business community, and the embassies should work together to create the best possible conditions for trade and investments between our countries. This includes a high level of transparency, rule of law, ethical conduct, and observance of human rights. This will automatically increase the interest of old and new investors. To be more precise, we should all work actively to increase the trade volumes between our countries. There is an untapped potential for Georgian exports of high-quality wine and food products to Norway. The Georgian authorities, with the support of international partners, should increase their efforts to assist small Georgian producers to be able to export to the EU and EFTA countries, as well as to promote their products in these markets. On the other hand, there is a potential to increase the import of Norwegian fish products to Georgia. We should also continue to strive for more people-to-people contacts between our countries, including through tourism and student exchange. This will underpin our efforts to strengthen our political and economic ties.

Finally, what are the plans of the Royal Norwegian Embassy of Georgia for 2023? What will be your priorities?

Our main priority from the previous years – assisting Georgia in its European and Euro-Atlantic integration – will continue in 2023. Our approach in these efforts will remain holistic, spanning from providing support to democratic reforms and enhanced security, to focusing on widened economic cooperation and strengthening people-to-people contacts. Georgia has a unique opportunity this year to take a historic next step on its path to European and Euro-Atlantic integration. It is crucial that all good forces unite to make that happen. Norway will remain Georgia’s close partner and supporter in this historic undertaking.

This article first appeared on Business Media Georgia (BM.ge/en), a Forbes publication, and is reprinted with permission.

Also see: What to see and do in and around Tbilisi, Tbilisi’s Norwegian greats, and Khachapuri, Georgia’s national dish in the April 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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