QUESTION: Madam Secretary, thank you very much for your time. And your statement in Chicago that this was a last non-enlargement summit brings some optimism to Georgia. And what should be expected in terms of Georgia-NATO integration the next two years? And can Georgia become a member with Russian troops on soil? Because we all remember President Medvedev saying that with the war of 2008, Russia stopped Georgia’s NATO integration process.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, first, let me say how pleased I am to be talking with you and what a wonderful visit I’ve had here in Batumi and delighted to be back in Georgia. The answer to the question about NATO really depends upon the progress that is made, because each of the aspirant countries that I met with in Chicago had different challenges still ahead. But we are very committed to the Bucharest principles and to working with Georgia and the other countries so that they do make progress.
Obviously, from our perspective, we think it’s a bedrock principle that any country should have the right to choose its own alliances, including security alliances. So I hope that we’ll see continuing progress on interoperability and all of the military cooperation.
And of course, it will be important how the elections in Georgia go, because Georgia has made so much progress, and I’m very proud I’m here on the 20th anniversary of our diplomatic relations. And we want to see very good, free, fair, transparent parliamentary elections, then a presidential election, because Georgia can really set the standard for what it means to be a democracy in the 21st century.
QUESTION: So you said that Russia can stop this process, our aspiration to NATO.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, we do not —
QUESTION: Russia doesn’t have any power to stop it?
SECRETARY CLINTON: They do not have a veto. No country has a veto over the choices that another country makes. Now, of course, the reality is that every country that is offered membership in NATO has to be offered that unanimously. And I can’t speak for any other country in the NATO alliance other than my own, so I do think that the more Georgia demonstrates that it’s making progress, that it is not only economically progressing but progressing on the path toward institutionalizing democracy, the outreach to neighbors, the trying to calm the waters – I think that will make an impression on the other members of NATO too.
QUESTION: There are many fears in Georgia that Russia can resume that military conflict (inaudible). And there is a reason for that, because in 2008, mission wasn’t fulfilled. Russia hasn’t changed, so we held (inaudible) in the government. And Georgia’s NATO aspiration has remained the same. And Georgian – this is a very important question for Georgians – that what are the international mechanisms – what are the reassurances that Russia will not resume the military conflict against Georgia?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, there’s no way to give anyone ironclad guarantees, because countries act in ways that are often unpredictable or sadly predictable, as the case might be. But here we are in 2012, and I think that the progress that Georgia has made in the last four years has drawn the world’s attention, that here is a relatively small country able to tackle so many of the issues that any country developing and democratizing has to.
And there’s a great deal of understanding. Georgia is now asked by people all over the world to send experts to talk about how to reform economies and how to set up political systems and deliver services to people. So there is an international awareness of Georgia and Georgia’s aspirations, which I think sends a strong signal that they – that the people of Georgia deserve to chart their own future.
And since we strongly support the territorial integrity and independence of Georgia, and we don’t recognize the secessionist areas – hardly anybody else does either – I think there are other things that need to be concentrated on by all of us. The United States, Russia, the European Union, we have a lot of issues that we have to deal with economically, security. We’ve got this terrible problem in Syria.
So I imagine there will still be rhetorical volleys going back and forth, but certainly it’s my hope that nobody provokes anything, that the secessionist areas don’t provoke anything, that everybody just keeps working to improve Georgia. That’s my hope.
QUESTION: You mentioned Syria and a question about recent politics – policies. The reset button that you have famously put forth years ago has brought some consequences. But tendencies are changing. Putin accused the U.S. of backing massive protests against him, that the countries can’t find that the common language over missile defense issue, and the Syria of course. Russia continues to help Syria’s regime, and as you pointed out recently, is going to help contribute to a civil war. And given this background, how do you see the future of reset?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I think that the so-called reset was important, because the United States and Russia have a lot of work to do together. The START Treaty that continues the reduction of nuclear weapons is in both of our interests and the interest of the world and a peaceful world. Working together on Afghanistan has been very positive. Working against terrorism and drug trafficking – we wanted to work to find those areas where we could cooperate.
Now, at the same time, we still have differences, and those differences are principled differences as to where we stand on a lot of very difficult matters. But I think in today’s world it’s important that we not have relationships where you’re either able to cooperate or you can’t cooperate. Let’s be practical and let’s find areas where we can bridge our differences, let’s work to try to narrow those differences, and let’s stand our ground whenever and wherever we have to. And on democracy, on human rights, on the freedom of people to choose their own leaders and their own futures, we strongly support that, and we’re going to continue to try to manage our relationship along those lines.
QUESTION: But if it continues to help the – Syria’s regime, what will be reaction of the international community, the West, and the U.S.?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, with respect specifically to Syria, it’s deeply regrettable that Assad has not been pressured to step down. This is such a complicated issue that we’re all trying to struggle with. But Kofi Annan has a six-point plan, including political transition. And we now think that we have to make a concerted effort to bring Russia to the table to help us have a transition plan that will give the people of Syria a chance to pick their own leaders. So tonight in Istanbul, I’ll be meeting with a number of nations. Friday in Washington, I’ll be meeting with Kofi Annan.
This is such a problematic issue, because we don’t have the unanimity of the United Nations Security Council, we don’t have the unanimity of the Arab League. We don’t have any international recognized group that knows exactly what the right thing to do is because Syria could fall into an even more horrible state of violence with many more people at risk of being killed, injured, and displaced. We’re all trying to avoid that, but we’re also trying to stop Assad and his regime from continuing their brutal assault on their own people.
So I can’t sit here and tell you that I know how we’re going to do it, but I do know that it’s imperative we keep working on it, because it’s unacceptable in today’s world – just like we were talking about nobody should threaten Georgia’s independence, your territorial integrity, people should not be permitted as leaders to assault their own citizens.
QUESTION: And about Georgia, first, I saw you met yesterday the political opposition leaders and you met representatives of civil society. What’s your impression – how would you evaluate election environment? Is there any – enough competition? And there is level playground — that’s very important.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Yes. I fully agree with that. And I wanted to meet with the opposition because we know from very long experience in our own democracy that you have to try to have this so-called level playing field where people have access to the media, where there’s enough observers so that they can validate an election or point out problems in the election.
And in meeting with the opposition, I listened very carefully to their concerns. We’ve conveyed those to the government. Our ambassador and our government will be working to try to help ensure that not only on the day of the election but in the months preceding the election that it’s a competitive environment and that the election goes well.
And we do that not because we choose sides. That’s up to the Georgian people to decide. But we do it because we believe in democracy and we believe in Georgia. We think Georgia is so much on the right track, and we think a valid electoral outcome in parliament and presidential elections will further Georgia’s reputation as the kind of model that we want to see other countries follow.
QUESTION: And this is the biggest challenge for us – for the government right now. The things – this fair election – how election will be conducted?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I think it’s a challenge for two reasons. I think it’s a challenge because whenever you’re in government – and I’ve been in politics, so I have won elections and I’ve lost elections and I’ve been in government. I’ve been in the majority and I’ve been in the opposition – you think you’re doing a good job and you’re working really hard. And I have met a lot of the people working in the Georgian Government, and they are terrific. They’re working hard, they’re producing results, they’re changing the way things are done. I went to the Public Service Hall here in Batumi. I was very impressed.
So when you’re working that hard and you’re seeing things change, you think, well, people should vote for us, and why is there any question to it. But you can’t ever in a democracy think you have all the answers, that you are immune from either criticism or questioning, which is why it’s more important to establish strong institutions than strong people. Strong people will come and go. We’re all human. And what’s important in a sustainable democracy is that the institutions are strong. And so what we want is a free, fair election where the Georgian people make the decision as to who they want to represent them and that’s it’s another step in building these strong institutions that are going to carry Georgia into the future.
And I have to add I am so impressed by the young people of Georgia. When I was at the Public Service Hall here, when I was commissioning the coast guard cutter as part of our military defense cooperation, the young government officials, the young public servants, the young military officers – there is just a feeling of energy and dynamism, and we don’t want anything to disrupt that. We want it to keep growing.
QUESTION: Madam Secretary, thank you so much for thinking that.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you. It’s been a real pleasure.
QUESTION: Thank you. It was great pleasure for me to meet you. You are a real source of inspiration for many women.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you.