A diplomat of principle
Maia Panjikidze, the first female Georgian foreign attaché, always loved her profession, but was never afraid to leave it when its demands clashed with her beliefs
In 2010, Maia Panjikidze resigned her position as head of the Georgian mission to the Netherlands over a disagreement with her government’s domestic policy. She went back to her first profession – teaching literature and German language to high school and university students – and did not think she would ever join the ranks of the diplomatic corps again.
Yet join she did – just two years later – with what seemed at the time a ticket to change her country for the better, the Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia coalition. “A new era started in Georgia and everybody wanted to be part of this new wave that offered a new perspective and new opportunities for the country,” she says. In a whirlwind of events, Panjikidze first became the spokesperson for the coalition, then a MP when it won the elections, and immediately afterwards, Foreign Minister.
Her first visits, symbolic as they always are, were booked: Brussels, then Berlin, then Washington DC. Everywhere she went, she was meeting old friends and acquaintances from her ambassadorial days in Berlin and The Hague. Among them was Stefan Fule, a Czech career diplomat and, at the time, Commissioner for EU Enlargement, who wanted to be convinced that the Caucasian country was still on track to join the European family.
“I told him: Stefan, as long as I am in the Georgian government, you can be sure that we will go the European way. But if I leave the government, I can't be sure we will remain on it,” Panjikidze recalls saying. Two years later, when she announced her resignation, the first call she received was from Fule: “Dear Maia, what is going on, are you still on the way to Europe?”, he asked. And I said, unfortunately, I am not sure anymore.”
A Euro-Atlantic at heart
For Maia Panjikidze, who proudly holds the claim to be not only Georgia’s first female diplomat, but also a very early joiner to the young country’s budding foreign service, the direction has always been towards Europe. This has been true since before she became a diplomat and remains true to this very day, when she works for the European integration of her society, albeit not from the frontlines of diplomacy. “I am a professor at the university and I am working in my first profession, which is philology. I teach students how to interpret texts from world literature,” she says, adding that this is, in practice, a continuation of her old job. “Throughout my life I have seen myself as doing things for Georgia's European integration, so providing young Georgians a chance to become familiar with foreign literature and ideas also contributes to that end.”
She took this path a long time ago, even before what we now understand as “Euro-integration” really existed as a concept. In the late 70s, the mature years of state socialism, an 18-year-old Panjikidze went to study German philology at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena in the German Democratic Republic. She then returned to Tbilisi and started her career as a language teacher in the capital’s German school.
But her career path would take a sudden swerve in 1994, when the newly established Georgian Republic, freshly out of the Soviet grip, had to establish foreign relations for the first time. “The first embassy that Georgia opened in Europe was the one in Bonn. Imagine – it was 1994, Georgia was a very young independent country, and of course, we did not have diplomats – because we did not need ones during Soviet times,” Panjikidze remembers.
As one of the few people available who had actually lived in Germany and was proficient in German, out of the blue she became the first Georgian female diplomat. “We had established only one embassy before that – in the US, with all men, and next this German one, where I was the only woman.”
A second career as a prolongation of the first one
The teacher-turned-diplomat suddenly found herself in an unknown world where she and her colleagues had to piece together a puzzle from scratch, without much preparation or knowledge of what exactly they had to do. “We went to Bonn without knowing anything and it was a process of learning by doing,” Panjikidze says, and adds with a smile: “We were pioneers.”
In such a situation, her youth, gender, and lack of experience did not mean much, as there was work to be done: “My task, as the only one with professional training in the German language, was everything that had to do with that language – to write, to speak, to translate. It was amazing, of course, because it was a completely different situation and experience.”
The Georgians did not have much to start with – no embassy building, no bank account, and no car while their office and living quarters remained in a hotel for weeks. “Many things were very ridiculous. Young people with no experience came to Bonn to establish an embassy. But it was amazing, a very good time in our lives, and we all became life-long friends,” she remembers.
What followed was a ten-year stint in the diplomatic service of her country, rising up the ranks in the Embassy of Georgia to Germany (which moved to Berlin when that city became the capital of the reunified German state). After the (supposedly) pro-Western “Rose Revolution”, Panjikidze moved back to Georgia to become a deputy Foreign Minister, and then back to Berlin – to head the embassy there between 2004 and 2007. Then she was appointed ambassador in The Hague, where she remained until 2010 – and where she thought she would be leaving her second career for good.
A Janus-faced domestic policy
“In 2010 I was fired from my position as ambassador to Holland for political reasons – I did not agree with the government’s domestic policy. I have always believed that diplomacy is not policy, that they are different fields, but you can never divide one from the other completely,” she recalls. To understand what she means, Panjikidze gives an example. “Someone who doesn't know anything about Georgia should understand that the country was part of the Soviet Union, and Russia still thinks of it as part of its sphere of influence. So, this small Georgia tries to find friends in Europe and the USA in order to strengthen its independence and freedom. But Russia is not willing to allow that. It occupies 20 percent of our territory, we had a war in 2008 and of course, Moscow is not willing to see a strong and independent Georgia emerge. One has to fight for this independence every day, and the only way you can do that is to have many friends in Europe, many friends in the USA, and by making your country and its democracy stronger,” she says.
To her, it appeared that both the Saakashvili government after 2010 and the subsequent Georgian Dream coalition from 2014 onwards backtracked from this primary goal. “Here in Georgia, you only hear declarations – “we want to be part of the EU, we want to be part of NATO, we will apply by 2024 to the EU.” When you say something like this, you need to do your homework very, very well. Saying that these are our priorities yet simultaneously doing the opposite of what we were supposed to was something very difficult to explain to our foreign colleagues,” Panjikidze says.
The particular issue that led to her resignation in 2014 had to do with a military procurement gone wrong – and showed a deepening division within the Georgian Dream coalition with regards to the outward orientation of the country. “The Defence Minister at the time was in France to sign a contract for defence systems but at the last minute, he got a call from the Prime Minister that ordered him to come back without signing the agreement. Because of this conflict between the Defence Minister and the Prime Minister, the former was fired and that was the reason why the faction in the parliament belonging to the pro-European circle resigned,” she says. She concludes: “It was the struggle between Russian and European influences. It was just normal that we wanted to warn everybody of what was to come.”
The downfall of the pro-European consensus
The incident that broke the camel’s back for Panjikidze also turned into a political cornerstone for Georgia as a whole. One by one, parties that defined themselves as pro-European and liberal withdrew from the Georgian Dream coalition. As Freedom House wrote in their Freedom in the World report, “democratic progress has stagnated in recent years. Oligarchic actors hold outsized influence over policy and political choices, and the rule of law continues to be stymied by political interests.” Since October of last year, the country has, in practice, been without a working parliament since the opposition has demanded new elections, calling the 2020 ones rigged. The two sides only recently agreed on a ceasefire, after an EU-US brokered mediation in late April.
“Many people today think they should have listened more closely to the words we said at the start, because all the problems we see today started in 2014. Not because we personally left the Georgian government, but because of what we identified back then,” Panjikidze remarks. This shift prevents her from being too nostalgic about her diplomatic career. “If you don't believe in the things that are going on in your country, then you can't carry out a good foreign policy, you can’t be comfortable with promoting it in front of your foreign colleagues,” the diplomat says. “I can't accept that we needed European and US mediation to sit at the same table, to speak about our very Georgian problems, and boycott the work of parliament. I can't understand this inability to have a normal political process, I can't accept and I can't imagine being in foreign affairs now, supporting the things going on. I don't believe that we are doing the right thing,” she concludes sombrely.
Despite all, she still sees the light at the end of the tunnel – and it is connected to the Euro-Atlantic values she remains devoted to. “With parties accepting only Western mediators, it makes me feel that everybody in Georgia now recognizes how important our Western friends are. This positive influence of the West on the political process will show the people how important this partnership is and somehow make them believe in the need for European integration. When people believe that this is the right way, this is a very strong factor in politics,” Panjikidze says.
Admission of luck
Curiously, despite practically spearheading the role of women in Georgian diplomacy, Panjikidze has little to say about gender empowerment. She is honest about that: “There are many brave women fighting against discrimination. I am not among them, I am not an active fighter for equality, but I can be an example that shows if you use the chances life gives you and you have a strong will, you can achieve anything.”
The diplomat does not shy away from talking about the luck she had on the way. “I always said I was very fortunate in my life. I had the chance when I was 18 to go to study in Germany. This is where I got the fundamental knowledge that helped me excel in my profession. I was very fortunate to have very good parents who gave me everything they could and a very good education. Education is fundamental to everything else in life. And that is what I always tell young women: try to get a good education and you will be free, and if you are free, you can move things. To know at least one thing in your life very well is very important.”
The sense of not being any different from male colleagues remained with her during her diplomatic years. “Then I did not see any difference between men and women. I can't tell you why, maybe because I was privileged and had very famous parents in Soviet times, but I never thought that I was getting or not getting something because I was a woman.” She agrees that there are indeed fewer women in the high ranks of the foreign service in her country, but, on the other hand, Georgia has produced quite a few female ministers, most of whom are very well-known and respected.
Interestingly, it was the age she embarked on her diplomatic and later ministerial career that mattered more than gender to Panjikidze. When she left for Germany in 1994 with her two young boys, it turned out to be a blessing for the family. “It was a very difficult time for our country, and many people left for Europe as economic refugees. Conditions were terrible, there was no electricity, it was dangerous to walk in the dark. It was an opportunity for us to live in good conditions in Germany,” she recalls. She became Foreign Minister at 52, describing it as “the most beautiful age to become a minister.” “You are already experienced so you can face difficulties, both the good and the bad things, and you can't do that when you are 25,” she laughs.
Like most politicians, Panjikidze suffered her fair share of public attacks while holding office. But she did not flinch, because she knew what she was working for and she had the self-confidence not to give in. “If there ever were at least some people that understood what your mission was when you worked with your whole heart and energy, then that is enough. You don't need to have complete public acceptance; you are not a film star – you don't need a big audience to know that you've done something for your country,” she says.
Today Panjikidze has left the limelight of the diplomat and its public persona in the past. She is back to her original profession as a philologist, translator, and teacher, one that she still adores. Recently, she has translated a novel by the Austrian writer Peter Handke called “The Moravian Night” and also juried a literature prize on tolerance and human rights sponsored by the German embassy in Tbilisi. Does she feel comfortable doing this? Yes, she seems to be enjoying a newfound freedom: “It is a very good feeling, to be honest, because you can express many things through literature, especially when you mix foreign and Georgian authors. I believe that everything that happens in our lives is logical and now it was time for me to do other things. You can fight for the things you believe in in so many different ways.”
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