The Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center hosted a discussion about Georgia’s recent parliamentary elections held on October 1 with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DLR) Thomas Melia, NDI President Kenneth Wollack, and Atlantic Council Executive Vice President Damon Wilson. Eurasia Center Director Ross Wilson moderated the discussion.
Welcome: Frederick Kempe, President and CEO, The Atlantic Council
Moderator: Ross Wilson, Director, Eurasia Center
Speakers: Thomas Melia, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DLR); Kenneth Wollack, President, National Democratic Institute; Damon Wilson, Executive Vice President, Atlantic Council
FRED KEMPE: We welcome you to this enormously important and timely conversation about Georgia’s parliamentary elections held eight days ago on October 1st. The word “historic” is overused, but these were historic elections. Georgia has always had outsized importance because of its evolution – as a former Soviet republic, as an early democracy and now as a democracy that is testing one of the most fragile moments of an early democracy which is its first moment of transition to power.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Georgia myself, and particularly in the Soviet period and then the transition period. And so I’ve watched this – we at the Atlantic Council have watched this, not only for the importance of the country itself but also as a bellwether of what is possible in a – in a – in a difficult region. It’s one of several events and projects that we’ve had at the Atlantic Council on Georgia over the last few years.
We’ve been very honored to have the co-chairmanship of our – of our Georgia task force with Lindsey Graham – Senator Lindsey Graham and Senator Jeanne Shaheen – bipartisan, as is the Atlantic Council. And it was chaired by council Vice Presidents Damon Wilson and Fran Burwell. The report was issued in late 2011, entitled, “Georgia in the West: A Policy Road Map to Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic Future.”
A key conclusion of the report was that the 2012 parliamentary elections and the 2013 presidential election represent a historic opportunity to witness its first democratic and peaceful transfer of power. I’ve already noted what a rarity this is for the region. And we’ll be watching the – this very closely now, as President Saakashvili has conceded defeat, announced that his United National Movement will move into opposition and Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition moves into power.
One could say democracy has taken a leap forward, but I think one also has to watch where things go now and see what sort of maturity can be shown on all sides in this – in this transition period and also the impact of neighbors, friends as Georgia makes this historic transition.
We’re going to have three experts here examining the significance of the election results for the country’s future, U.S.-Georgia relations. You have their biographies so I’m not going to repeat them except to say that Thomas O. Melia serves as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor – it’s terrific to have you with us – recently led an interagency delegation to Georgia that included senior officials from the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, Department of Justice and the Pentagon.
Kenneth Wollack is the president of the National Democratic Institute, one of the real heroes and advocates of Democracy in this town and around the world – always great to have you at the Atlantic Council – led an NDI election observer mission that returned just days ago from Georgia. And then our own Damon Wilson, executive vice president here at the Atlantic Council, worked the Georgia issue in the White House as senior director for European affairs at the National Security Council where he was also special assistant to the president, before joining the council in 2009.
This event is on the record, open discussion. Each of our experts will give remarks and then the moderator will open to questions. And thank you for joining us. And with that, I’ll turn the floor over to Ross Wilson, the director of our Patriciu Eurasia Center, former ambassador to Turkey and to Azerbaijan. Ross.
ROSS WILSON: Great. Thank you very much, Fred. Let me add my welcome to Fred’s to all of you for coming today. The Atlantic Council is a – I think is a great friend of Georgia. We’re very pleased and proud of the work that we do on Georgia and we’re very pleased to see such a large group here that’s interested in this conversation about the tumultuous events that have taken place in Georgia over the last nine or 10 days.
What we want to do, I think, is do a little bit of look-back at the – at the election, at the pre-campaign period and the election itself. We’re very pleased that Tom Melia was in Georgia very shortly before the elections, Ken at the time of the elections and also they’re leading an NDI delegation to Georgia in June. And bookending this function another Wilson, Damon, we’re very pleased, will be able to talk a little bit about the broader context and hopefully where Georgia goes and a little bit on where U.S.-Georgian relations will go.
So let me turn it over first to Tom to set the stage on what you saw, what you observed and the kind of messages that you were trying to convey while you were there.
THOMAS MELIA: Sure. Well, thank you, Ambassador Wilson. And thanks to all here at the Atlantic Council for organizing this forum today. The first thing to keep in mind is that the election is not over yet. There’s still some seats where votes have to be counted or recast and counted again. So we don’t – and until those seats are resolved, we won’t know exactly how the end of the election turned out.
It’s important because these are contested seats. There’s been very intense competition over how to count these ballots in the last week. So I think it’s important to keep in mind that the election process is not really over, I think the election experts, Ken, will say, until the elected officials are installed in office and begin to govern. And so –
KENNETH WOLLACK: And by-elections.
MR. MELIA: And there will be some by-elections because of some appointments to the Cabinet, which will take some people out of their parliamentary seats. So – and with the close margin that appears to have resulted from the election, each of those seats will matter a great deal. And as a collection they matter even more.
So the election’s not over. And secondly, to state an obvious truism, elections by themselves don’t make a democracy. We all know that to be true. But what we have under way, nonetheless, in Georgia is a remarkable transition. It’s noteworthy and interesting for the gracious way in which President Saakashvili and his colleagues have acknowledged the – their defeat at the polls and have begun to cooperate in a transition to an opposition political movement that they don’t have much love for.
And so I think watching this unfold, as we have done now for the last eight days, is a – is a keeper. It’s one of these times that I hope we will see more often in the former Soviet space, but it’s rare enough to this point that I think we should watch it all very, very closely and take some lessons from the participation of all sides in this as they have, in many ways, risen to the challenge of this historic moment and in other ways need our continued encouragement to do better. And that encouragement to do better is what our policy had been about for the last couple of years, and particularly in the last year leading up to last week’s polls.
The United States has a strategic partnership dialogue with Georgia. It’s a mechanism that we have with some other countries as well, where we engage on a regular basis on a whole range of issues of mutual interest in a formal and informal way. And the rule of law and democracy, including how these elections would be conducted, has been a consistent, very high-level part of our engagement with the Georgian government for more than the last year, but intensively in the last year.
The highest level engagement face-to-face was when Secretary Clinton was in Georgia in June for a high-level version of this ongoing strategic dialogue. And so my delegation that I led there last month should be seen as – not in isolation as an interesting multiagency delegation that went, which is unusual in some ways, but as part of this broad, continuous engagement by the United States with one of our most valued partners in the region and the world, in Georgia.
And what’s been interesting about this engagement is that as we’ve raised concerns, as the election season was shaped by the election law and some related laws a year ago and the way they were implemented in the course of 2012, the Georgian authorities have, in many ways, been responsive to the concerns we’ve raised.
When we asked that they inaugurate the Inter-agency Task Force, this unique Georgian institution that manages complaints about the election process. They set it up a couple months earlier than they had to do under their own laws. When we pressed them to make access to the media more equitable for all contending parties, they did adopt legislation on the so-called must carry for cable television news and made more of the competing narratives of Georgia’s politics to a broader swath of Georgian viewers of cable television.
And when we raised concerns about the reports that we had heard of harassment of local officials and people around the country for participating in opposition – political rallies and meetings and so on – the government again responded. And this was in the context of this Inter-agency Task Force led by Giga Bokeria, the national security adviser.
And they issued an order that said to all government agencies: Don’t do any more layoffs this year until after the elections because people – you know, their point to us was that people were misconstruing this as politically motivated firings. The fact that they took the step to discontinue firings of people at government agencies across the country meant that that – it calmed that bit of turbulence. We didn’t hear those complaints later in the – in the campaign season.
So I want to give credit where it is due to the outgoing Georgian government for being responsive to a number of things that we raised, including the ones I just mentioned, for taking steps to make it a more open and more competitive political process. We continued to press them on some things that we thought they could have done better on, like the implementation of the campaign finance law and the work of the Special Audit Office that was investigating campaign violations – campaign finance law violations.
We told them then, and we said it public and in private, that we thought was used in a politically directed way, mainly against the Georgian Dream and the opposition. And the fact that they had – took the leader and the deputy leader of that implementing agency and put them on their party list when the campaign list had to be finalized, you know, in this campaign process kind of undermined the perception of integrity of a disinterested, legitimate process. The fact that a member of parliament then flipped in the other direction and became the head of that office also made it look like it was more partisan-oriented than it should have been.
At the same time, there were other institutions that I think rose above the temptation to act in a partisan way. And I’m thinking particularly of the – at this point, again, we’ll see how the final results of the election process pan out – but the Central Election Commission, it definitely improved their systems in this election over previous ones. They took advice that came to them in USAID-supported programs that provided advice to the election commission.
Since Paige Alexander and USAID were a part of our interagency delegation last month, I want to give a little shout out to AID for the investment they made in this process over a number of years, not only supporting the work for NDI and IRI, but also of IFES and those people who advised the technical people at the election commission. I think that’s another part of this intense and broad and deep engagement we have had with Georgia over a number of years, and that I think was reflected in the – just in the – in the kind of election we saw. Not only that various parts of it did improve measurably over previous elections, but again that they were politically responsive to us when we raised certain concerns in this process.
Now, when we went in last month, frankly, I thought that the prospect of violence on election night or the day after was quite real, that there were a lot of stories about preparations for militant protests. And so we spent a lot of time with both sides in the election. And I know there was a third major political movement that we thought might get into parliament, in the Christian Democratic Movement, that did not surpass the threshold, but with whom we met also when we were there.
But I think in our meetings with the Georgian Dream and the government in the UNM, we spent a lot of our time with them last month trying to talk them down from the militant rhetoric that both sides were developing about a confrontation on election night. And again, focusing on the process, focusing on the procedures that we encouraged all sides to do, complemented by the technical assistance that the AID-funded programs and other contributed to the process, I think that – (background noise, inaudible) – Georgians – enabled Georgians to make good decisions last week and in the latter part of the campaign.
So we can talk more about the various other contributions that were made in this intense bilateral relationship. The Department of Justice was along with us because of the ongoing cooperation and administration of justice programs that we have there. The Pentagon was along and Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Jennifer Walsh and an Army colonel were along in our delegation in order to demonstrate that all of our relationship would be improved by an election with integrity.
That was the message we sent in all our meetings: An election with integrity would improve our cooperation on so many fronts. And at the same time we were saying publicly and privately what we mean, which is that we were engaging in this election season without any preference. We wanted the Georgian people to be able to make their choice, choose who would go to parliament and directly then who would become the prime minister.
So we are I’ll begin – I’ll end right now where I began by saying that the election is not over. Much more than the election is necessary to further consolidate Georgia’s democratic trajectory, but this election and the transition that is now under way are very hopeful developments in Georgia’s story. So we can come back to more of this. So I’ll turn it back to you.
MR. R. WILSON: Great. Thank you very much Fred – Tom. Ken, you were there on election day and the immediate aftermath. I’ll be interested to hear from you, what did you see and what did you think about the results?
MR. WOLLACK: Well, NDI has been in Georgia since 1992 to observe those elections and then continuously in the country since 1994 working with the parliament, political parties and civic organizations. And having been there in the pre-election environment in June and then again for the election, I was thinking that if Charles Dickens was to write a book on this elections, he would call it the tale of two elections. And it was the best of times and it was the worst of times throughout this process.
But perhaps to provide a little bit of a context and perspective on this, maybe it’s useful to go back nine years because that was the last competitive election that took place in Georgia. And there you had a whole effort during the pre-election period when Secretary Baker flew out to Georgia on behalf of the president to try to convince President Shevardnadze to hold a decent election. I remember we sent out a delegation with Strobe Talbott and General Shalikashvili. Others also sent envoys out.
And what you had ultimately on election night was the results that were coming into the Central Election Commission that ultimately announced results that did not reflect the will of the people. Parallel to that, there was a parallel vote tabulations conducted by the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, ISFED, that NDI supported at the time, that came out with their numbers which showed wide-spread fraud and manipulation, particularly in Adjara. And unlike the election commission results, showed that Saakashvili’s United National Movement had a plurality and not President Shevardnadze’s – (inaudible) – new Georgia. At the time, Saakashvili, Nino Burdzhanadze and Zurab Zhvania said that they would accept ISFED’s parallel vote tabulation as the official – as the official results.
Shevardnadze rejected that appeal, sat an illegitimately elected parliament, which triggered the Rose Revolution.
Now, fast forward nine years and after an open and, albeit flawed, pre-election process which Tom talked about, you had an election commission that made an announcement, at least for the proportional vote, that placed the Georgian Dream with 54.9 percent, with ISFED’s parallel vote tabulation showing the number at 54.6 percent. And the UNM’s vote by the election commission was 40.4, with ISFED’s parallel vote tabulation, 40.7. So what ultimately you had is a confirmation that the electoral authorities conducted an accurate count.
And the results that were announced by the commission were ultimately accepted by – largely by both sides and by the Georgian people. You had a president that conceded defeat and, surprisingly to some, agreed to appoint a Cabinet that would be presented to him by the Georgian Dream, because for the next year it’s – the president has the power to appoint the Cabinet and many – and many other powers that transfers to a prime minister after the next presidential election next year.
Now, what happened to make this election competitive, which I – again, it’s instructive compared to what took place nine years ago.
Number one, you had election reforms that took place, and some of these reforms were conducted between the UNM and opposition parties – not all opposition parties, but a number of significant ones. You had the interagency task force that Tom mentioned, led by Giga Bokeria, and most people give the task force and his work high marks. You had the commission for ensuring the voter list accuracy, which didn’t solve all the problems that existed in the list, but the list was basically a cause of great contention among the population, and our public opinion polls showed that. And it’s certainly the work of the commission that was led by an opposition leader enhanced confidence among the people that the list represented an improvement.
You had, as Tom said, the must-carry provision, which forced cable operators to carry a more diverse set of Georgian TV channels, and generally an open campaign, in the sense that parties could conduct rallies around the country and get their message out. And in our polls, ultimately, has showed that the majority of prospective voters had what they called, quote-unquote, “enough information” about their electoral options. You also had Georgian Dream, which unified a significant segment of the political opposition, and spending by Georgian Dream and by Mr. Ivanishvili that lessened the disparity in resources and visibility that have characterized previous campaigns.
Now, finally, I would say you had, I believe, positive engagement by political parties, by civic organizations and by citizens themselves. You had 42,000 domestic observers, you had thousands of party agents, and so therefore you had lots of people protecting the integrity of the vote and protecting their own interests at the polls. And usually around the world, if you have that constellation of active engagement by civil society, by parties and by the voters themselves, something good comes out – comes out of the process. However, there was one negative aspect in this is that you had a proliferation of international and domestic observer groups that refused to reveal their funding sources and whose actions revealed a – quite a partisan agenda, and this was a troubling development which we hope is not carried on the road to other places, because it undermines sort of the international norms and standards that govern both international observation and domestic election monitoring – nonpartisan domestic election monitoring.
You had a variety of very negative aspects of this process. This was the worst of times. You had what was a dearth of civil discourse in the country, what most people would describe as poisonous and vitriolic rhetoric. That also carried forth in the media, whether it was Rustavi 2 or Imedi for the government or whether it was the opposition, Kavkasia, Maestro and Channel 9. And the big challenge now is whether they’re going to be able to convert the very, very vitriolic rhetoric of a campaign into a more positive and conciliatory rhetoric of governing.
Secondly, you had certain laws, and the government’s selective enforcement of them appeared to be politically motivated. And while the Georgian Dream appeared early on to challenge, through large-scale campaign financing, the legitimacy of those laws – and I remember in June, one leader of the United National Movement that said that Georgian Dream is challenging the entire system, and we don’t know how to respond, and we don’t know where the lines are.
An example of this, as Tom mentioned, was the campaign finance laws. While they are technically in compliance with the recommendations of the Council of Europe and the OSCE, ended up to be rather politically motivated, and particularly the State Audit Office, which acted, in everyone’s view, in a politically selective way, rushed decisions. And ultimately, the movement of the chairman and one of the deputies to the UNM list and the replacement of the chairman by a member of the UNM in the parliament reinforced the appearance of partisanship, and particularly for an agency that had so much power.
And then you had, as in previous elections, but perhaps less, an abuse of administrative resources, although there was confusion about what constituted legitimate government expenditures during a campaign. You had incidences of threats, intimidation of party activists and voters, with some isolated clashes, and you had vote-buying by – or charges, allegations of vote-buying by the two main electoral competitors, which was frequently the subject of complaints and was a major concern raised in all of our polling. And then finally in this regard, you had administration detentions, particularly in the period from September 21st to 28th. Prior to that time, the administrative detentions were evenly split between UNM and Georgian Dream, but following the prison – the tragic prison scandal, you had a disproportionate number of Georgian Dream supporters, followers, members, 45, that were in administrative detention, versus three of the UNM.
The biggest game changer in all of this – and I think everyone looking back and even during it agree – the biggest game changer, however, was the revelation of the shocking prison abuses, and I think that ultimately, it had an impact – particularly among the large undecided voters in the country – had an impact among those, among the UNM and supporters of the Georgian Dream. The videos, I think, shocked a conservative society. There was a sense of collective shame. It undermined one advantage that the UNM had, and that was its ability to project itself as a – as a government that could govern the country. It undermined, among the citizens, the global image of Georgia and, in their view, hurt the – their aspirations to join the European Community and NATO.
There was also a personal connection among citizens with this, because with about 5 percent of the population at some point of the criminal justice system, everybody could imagine that they would know a family member or friend that was in prison or about to go to prison, and so therefore, there – it became very, very personal for people. It reinforced serious doubts not only about the judicial system in the country and the criminal justice system but also other aspects – health, education. It reinforced, in a sense, the Georgian Dream narrative about the government, and it undermined the UNM narrative that while unemployment was at about 20 percent – some say higher – that Georgia today is better off than it was nine years ago. And also, I believe, doubts about the Georgian Dream diminished among those undecided voters, and it demoralized UNM supporters. As one analyst put it to me – he said this was an Exocet missile hitting the most strategic place of a destroyer. And whatever lead that the UNM had in the last two weeks of the campaign quickly vanished.
The challenge – and I’ll conclude with this – I think the challenge now in Georgia will translate – as I said, the poisonous pre-election rhetoric from either vitriolic language or noncommunication – let’s not forget that the only communication that had taken place between the Georgian Dream and the UNM had been a meeting in Turkey in the spring of this year. This is going to be a divided government for a year until the presidential election takes place. No one has a constitutional majority, and these two forces have to co-habitate with the president having at least a decided advantage in terms of constitutional power, while the Georgian Dream has a popular mandate, at least in the legislative branch of government. Today’s meeting between the president and Mr. Ivanishvili is an encouraging sign. As many of you know, it lasted 35 minutes, and both sides brought in their key advisers. And there will have to be, I think, many more meetings of this nature, and the beginning of constructive discourse between the two sides in this year to keep, as what Tom said, the trajectory in – going in the right direction.
MR. R. WILSON: Thanks very much – (off mic) – explanation of where things are now.
Let me turn it over last to my friend and colleague Damon Wilson.
DAMON WILSON: Thank you, Ross, and thank you, Tom and Ken, for joining us today for this conversation.
I wanted to start by talking a little bit about the significance – what the election represented, but really focus my comments today on sort of the way forward in terms of policy and next steps.
I wanted to start with two images. It’s where Ken left off. It’s an image of President Saakashvili shaking hands with Georgian Dream leader Ivanishvili at their meeting today, the transition meeting. The second image – it’s an image for all Georgians to see of their – of their key team, their core team standing there shaking hands before the press conference where the two – both the leaders made statements to the Georgian population. Those images are significant. They’re very significant because they can set the tone for a way forward, which represents a new step forward in Georgia, the maturity of Georgians’ democracy.
This is the first democratic transfer of power in Georgia, and what we saw – as you heard from Tom, as you heard from Ken, we saw democracy in action. It was messy, it was a little dirty, but the Georgian Dream people faced a credible – had a credible process where they faced distinct alternatives, and to Georgian Dream’s credit, generated a large swathe of folks voting who hadn’t actually voted before to generate what was, to me, a surprising outcome. It’s significant because this does represent a significant step forward in the process of Georgian politics becoming more mature. One of the things that Ambassador Bass stood on the stage and talked about a few months ago before he stepped down as ambassador is significant because what happened in this election gives Tbilisi’s aspirations towards NATO and the EU a boost. It gives them more credibility.
Democracy has always been Georgia’s insurance, because it legitimizes its aspirations to join NATO, to move closer to the European Union and to, frankly, overcome geography. It also helps break a cycle in Georgia in which the failure of the opposition in Georgia undermined Georgia’s aspirations to move increasingly towards the West, because the failure of the opposition in the past led folks in Brussels and European capitals and Washington to be skeptical of the depth of Georgian democracy. The success of this opposition, I think, helps turn that argument on its head.
And finally, it’s significant in two more respects. One, there’s been a campaign since 2008, in many respects, to delegitimize the rule of President Saakashvili in Georgia, and I think by his actions in the wake of the election, he’s done more to secure his place as a historic transition figure in Georgia of legitimate democratic credentials than he could have through any other action.
I’ll get into some of the regional foreign policy implications as I talk about the way forward, because I think that speaks to the heart of the significance of what’s played out. But as we think about the agenda moving forward, it’s useful to think about it, I think, in perhaps three phases. One is right now. The election’s actually not over, as Tom reminded us. The second phase is really this year of cohabitation, when we will see a Georgian Dream-led government taking place under the continuing presidency of Saakashvili. And the third will be after his – President Saakashvili term – his term ends – concludes at the end of the – end of this year.
So if you focus on right now, we actually need to finish this election. We need clean, accepted election results. The election commission has until October 20th to finalize them. There are 12 districts where challenges are in play right now. There are four districts where there will have to be by-elections because these candidates were named as ministers in the new government. And we’re hearing a lot of reports from rural areas in Georgia, various reports of intimidation of local election councils as they’re trying to finalize some of these efforts to deal with these challenges. There’s a little bit of concern of efforts, perhaps, to try to achieve that magic constitutional majority and reach a hundred-seat threshold in parliament.
This process needs to come to a close cleanly, transparently, in a way that the Georgian people accept. And frankly, it’s a time for Georgian Dream to recognize that this aspiration of a constitutional majority could actually be an albatross around its neck rather than a blessing. It’s now, I think, incumbent upon the winners to demonstrate that the can govern and they can respect and work with an opposition rather than try to achieve a political outcome where they can ignore the opposition.
It’s also, I think – as we think about the immediate term, it’s time for President Saakashvili to be able to respect and give space to Georgian Dream to govern, and it’s time for Georgian Dream to actually respect the fact that President Saakashvili remains president, with real authorities. We’ve already seen the president leaning forward and saying that the despite the constitutional authorities he has and his powers, he will accept the government the president – that Ivanishvili will put forward. We saw an initial misstep by Georgian Dream leader Ivanishvili in calling for the immediate resignation of President Saakashvili, something he retracted within 24 hours. That’s significant because it’s important that Georgians learn to play by the political rules. It’s important that we have a president come to power and leave power according to rules. It’s the time to end sort of these climactic changes in authority. And so that’s why I think Ivanishvili’s retraction of his call on Saakashvili to resign was spot-on, the important thing to do to begin to create the habit and the political culture of normal transitions.
In this immediate phase, I also think it’s important to check any sense of vengeance. We’ve seen that play out in Georgian politics in the past. Even talking to – anecdotally to folks I’ve heard from in Georgia, all of them begin with their – their first comments are about, I’m just thinking about my children; I’m concerned about the future for my children, the situation for my family. And I think it’s the responsibility of anyone in power to just put those – put that issue of vengeance to rest and dispel that by leaning forward and showing a political culture that will be created. We’ve seen newspapers publishing the addresses of police that were – worked at the prison where the scandal took place. While there needs to be justice, there doesn’t need to be vengeance and retribution from a vigilante aspect.
And there’s been a lot of loose talk of criminalization. And I think the one strong message that is important to – for folks across the political spectrum to hear is that the moment you begin to criminalize political differences in a society like Georgia, you’re on the path to a difficult – you’re on – you’re onto a path that will undermine democracy. We’ve seen Ukraine go through a difficult issue of this discussion this past year, and I think it’s important for Georgia to avoid the temptation of that trap right now.
If you look out over to the first year – this first year where there will be cohabitation, this is an opportunity, again, as our good friend Ambassador John Bass said, to continue what really has been a mental revolution in Georgia to accompany the political changes. And that means this is an opportunity to strengthen, not degrade, the norms that have been taking hold in Georgia. Georgia’s history is one that’s had a tragedy history based on divisiveness, based on chauvinism. We are familiar with that in Georgia’s past, and I think there has been a few too many open remarks – xenophobic remarks, homophobic remarks, issues about religious and ethnic minorities, in which political leaders today have enough responsibility, I think, to put that to rest, to put that to side and to continue to signal the continuing evolution of a – of a Georgian society that respect a theory of inclusiveness in Georgian political society rather than one built on nationalism or the backbone of the Georgian people.
It’s time for President Saakashvili, in this first year, to respect and permit governance of a government which is of a different political tone from his own, while Ivanishvili, an untested leader, takes on the responsibility of governance. That needs to be his number one priority now is owning responsibility for leading Georgia forward in what has been a dramatic process of reform and historic evolution.
That means state institutions, which used to be frail and decrepit and actually dysfunctional in Georgia, they need to continue to function. So even as the new government looks forward to really needed reforms in the judiciary, the prisons, that we not take – we not see steps taken that actually undermine the ability of the police to function in a way that they have. This used to be the most corrupt-laden part of Georgian society. We’ve come a long way, and I think the Georgian Dream government has a responsibility to protect some of those advances.
To respect this idea of shared powers – and many societies and many parliaments in the former – in Eurasia, we’ve seen efforts to buy parliamentarians, to literally buy parliamentarians and their loyalty, to begin to build that magic majority, whether it’s a constitutional majority. And I think that’s something important to show that that’s not where this government is going to be headed. The second-most – second-most important elected position in Georgia is the mayor of Tbilisi, Gigi Ugulava, the first time we have a directly elected mayor of Tbilisi. I think it’s important that we see that that balance be respected and that the mayor continue to govern and be the elected mayor of Tbilisi through 2014. And it will require balance, it will require political tradeoff, it will require compromise if this government’s going to achieve in its agenda.
It’s important that professionals throughout ministries in Georgia not face a wide-scale firing or retribution. Sure, there’s transition. There should be transition in one government to the next, but Georgia increasingly needs to sustain and build up a competent cadre of professionals which staff their ministries and are sustained throughout transitions in government. Same with no political retribution or harassment. And importantly, on the – importantly, managing South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where the new government may have a particular opportunity to think about how to advance policy, but to do so in such a way that doesn’t undermine Georgia’s sovereignty claims.
So as you think about this beyond this first year, where there will be this enforced cohabitation, we don’t know what will follow in the elections to replace President Saakashvili. But the mere fact of President Saakashvili stepping down a year from now will build on, I would say, Irakli Alasania, who is now a minister in the Georgian – or will be a minister in the Georgian Dream government. His concession when he lost the mayor – the mayor’s race in Tbilisi was difficult to do but an important first step, and I think we need to all credit Alasania for helping to create that cycle of we lose, we acknowledge that defeat, we respect those that won. Now President Saakashvili has conceded on behalf of his party, at the end of the year stepping down as president. We’re locking in a process of trying to create that expectation, that political culture.
One of the things we talked about in our pre-election discussion here was that this election was really a bit of a missed opportunity to return to some degree of normalcy in Georgia politics, to move beyond personality-driven politics. And it’s not likely that anytime soon are we going to move away from the personality-driven politics of the Georgian political cycle, but I do hope that this continues to evolve in the way that is does become more of a battle of issues and ideas and opens up space so that it isn’t completely dominated by personalities in the future.
And finally, I think having – one of the things that struck me most about Georgia was this unifying vision that the people – the people of Georgia across all political stripes brought to their future an audacious view of a people that really saw their country different. They saw their country moving toward the West and partnership with Europe and the United States, aspiring to join the institutions of the trans-Atlantic community. And this was a vision shared across demographic groups, urban-rural, political stripes, and I think is really an opportunity for now a new government of a new political stripe to continue to figure out how to deliver on that common vision, unifying vision of the Georgian people.
So what’s our role? What’s the role of the international community going forward? First of all, weighing in now, the right thing – which I think Ambassador Dick Norland has been doing to great regard, and I’m sure many other Europeans in the field as well – we need to be engaging, we need to help shape the outcome. We frankly need to get to know Ivanishvili. The web of relationship to networks that linked so many in the Georgian government previously to those in Europe and the West doesn’t exist the same way with Ivanishvili or some of those that will be entering the government.
I think it’s important to engage and to build those relationships, help them with the initial instincts, the initial decisions to make them break the right way. We’re at the high point of the moral authority the Georgian Dream and Ivanishvili can enjoy. They can – they can lose that moral authority very quickly by taking some of the wrong decisions in an early stage. By working with them closely right now and checking some of the more negative instincts, there’s an opportunity, I think, to build some momentum on the way forward.
We need to recognize as an international community, what’s at stake. Over the past year, as I mentioned in our last session, I’ve had the opportunity to visit Yulia Tymoshenko in prison, to talk to Andrei Sannikov in Belarus after he was released from prison after running for president in Belarus, and to meet with Russian opposition figures, Boris Nemtsov and others, who have also spent time in prison.
Georgia is so much more than just a small Caucasus country with this plucky, rough-and-tumble, turbulent election. The demonstration effect of success, of democracy emerging in the South Caucasus, is significant here both for the region and for all of Eurasia, and I think that’s why we’ve been invested, why we should be invested in the success of how this plays out. And that means adopting a posture of assistance. We’re invested in the success of this experiment, and we need to have a posture as an international community of assisting this country with succeeding.
I think that requires being clear and articulating both what our vision is and the policy to back that up. And the vision of one that I think the West can more succinctly articulate is a Georgia that is really an emerging ally of ours, a Georgia to which we actually are committed, from the Bucharest Summit, to help it become a NATO ally of ours, to work with it as it moves closer to Europe.
And so if that’s our vision, what’s the policy that sustains it? First of all, I think continuing to help Georgia normalize this habit of democratic practice, the democratic – normalize democratic practices, as we talked about with – before, IRI, NDI, other organizations being, and they’re helping the Parliament to play a more important role as it gains constitutional powers, continue to help develop the diversity of media in Georgia, civil society, the judiciary.
But also I think it’s important that we be in there and help figure out how we show that those ministers in government right now, those officials in government, that they have life after government, that you can go into government in a post-Soviet society and come out and still have a career, still succeed, still be successful, still have a respected voice. And I think we have a bit of a responsibility to help that as well.
A heavy economic agenda, whether it’s moving forward with a free trade agreement that’s been talked about from a Washington perspective or the EU continuing to work on its deep and comprehensive free trade agreement. Part of the real challenge of governance will be job creation, the unemployment in Georgia.
And then, finally, having a clear strategy on NATO as we head into what will likely be a summit in 2014. Many of you have heard me before: We’ll have a strong colleague in Defense Minister Irakli Alasania who knows NATO – who knows NATO well, but a leader, Ivanishvili, who has much work to do to learn what it means, to learn that process of what it means to pursue NATO membership seriously. And I think us getting our act together so that we have clarity in the way forward before – in 2014 rather than stumbling into a summit I think is going to be an important test for us.
So let me end with that, Ross, and turn it back to you.
MR. R. WILSON: Great. Thank you – thank you very much, Damon. I will take the moderator’s prerogative to ask the first question and then turn to the audience. Please try to get my attention. When I call on you, wait for a microphone to come, please state your name and affiliation, and please ask a question of our panelists if you would, please.
I think the – one of the biggest challenges, and all three of you reflected on this in different ways, is this period that Georgia now enters of cohabitation, unprecedented in Georgian political history, extremely difficult in the history of other countries, including our own, where we have had something analogous.
And I wonder, Ken, if you could talk a little bit about how this was discussed among people you talked with sort of in the – in the immediate aftermath of the election. What are – what are they thinking about? What are – what problems do they point to? What attitude, for that matter, are they bringing to this?
And then – and then for Tom, Damon has laid out a number of, I think, guiding – of ideas about guiding principles for U.S. policy in this period. If you could talk a little bit practically about what the United States concretely will be trying to do or should be trying to do in this – in this period over the next couple of months as the results of the election and the immediate setting up a new government and so forth take place, and then leading forward to the presidential election next year.
Maybe Ken, to go first.
MR. WOLLACK: Well, I think both sides realize that there has – there’s a huge psychological shift that has taken place. I mean, to go from a dominant political party with a constitutional majority to opposition is going to take an enormous effort on the part of the UNM. They’re going to have to concentrate on party reform and renewal and all the things losing parties have to do, but they lost from a much higher perch than most parties.
And the opposition – and the now-ruling party, of which six parties within the Georgian Dream coalition can now form a parliamentary faction, so they’ve got the challenge of how do you operate as a true coalition not only during a campaign period but also in a legislative context. And that’s going to be challenging as well for the ruling party.
I think that there’s agreement on both sides in all of our meetings that took place, not only with the principles but people on – within both parties, that the one common – the commonality between the two is they see themselves as being something larger than themselves. They’re not insular. They believe that Georgia has to be part of the international community, part of Europe, part of NATO. So they – both sides have the same aspirations, and I think both sides, despite all this poisonous rhetoric, they believe that their – the – and they know that each other, they’re internationalists. And that is something to build upon.
And I think the great fear that both sides have, that if they can’t function, if they can’t cohabitate, if they can’t move the process forward, that the international community will simply look elsewhere, they’ll lose interest in Georgia. And if the one thing that Georgians can’t stand is an international community that doesn’t care about them. (Laughter.) And I think that’s true on all sides in Georgia. And they place a great deal of importance not only in the United States but in Europe and the international community at large. And I think this is something that they realize they can build upon, and even in the meeting today, that this was something that both sides emphasized as well as an area of agreement.
So I think the challenges are – partly are the challenges of a coalition on one side, the challenges of a – of a dominant party that has – that has lost a popular mandate and the ability to be – to come together so the international community maintains its interest and attention on the country.
MR. R. WILSON: Thank you. Tom.
MR. MELIA: Well, I would say that anticipating, hoping that this transition goes forward and as normal and democratic a way as it has begun, that the guiding principles for U.S. policy toward Georgia will remain what they have been. It is a friendly state with which we cooperate on many, many things. Georgia has the largest non-NATO military presence in Afghanistan alongside our troops. Georgia cooperated in the effort to bring Russia into the WTO, and clearly the outgoing government has appreciated the virtues of a more open trading environment, particularly in their subregion, with several closed borders among the neighboring states. It’s all the more important that Georgia be a beacon for free trade and greater commerce in the world as a means to securing prosperity for people in the region. And the Georgian government has demonstrated an understanding and willingness to be a partner in that.
Nothing changes with regard to the commitments and our interest in supporting Georgia’s advancement towards NATO. That will be a – as Damon mentioned, there’s another summit coming up in a couple years’ time, in 2014. That will obviously be a subject of intense discussion with the new Georgian government. Irakli Alasania knows, as Damon said, this environment very well. So I’m sure that will continue to be a live discussion amongst us and with our other allies.
So right now, there is no reason for us to be thinking about changing any of our fundamental policy vectors with Georgia. I – and I take Damon’s advice, and I hope that we will adhere to this in looking for ways to embrace the outgoing government officials as much as we look to befriend and get to know the new government officials on all these tracks. Normalizing the process of alternation in and out of government is very important, and I think we and the European community can play an important role in that by continuing to include the loyal opposition in the trans-Atlantic gatherings and the European political families. You know, there will now be two large partners in those gatherings. And I think it’s important that we not lose track of the people moving out of government for all the reasons that Damon indicated.
One thing that I think is a potential for enhanced cooperation in the immediate period and going forward, because it will take a long time to resolve, is to clean up the damn prisons. I think this is not a – this was not a new or surprising subject. Careful readers of the annual Human Rights Report of the State Department will recall that in the report released earlier this year, the number one human rights problem that we identified in our executive summary was inhumane conditions in prisons in Georgia.
Most of the information – a lot of the information we got that goes into that report came from the human rights ombudsman of Georgia, who’s been reporting on this for some time. He’s now in charge of the prisons, cleaning up the prisons, at least he was appointed by President Saakashvili. If he stays in place in the new administration, then we certainly have somebody who knows the problem. And whether he has the resources and the mandate to fix it will be an important test of the new government, I think.
And while I’m touching on the State Department’s human rights report, I want to – I want to note for the record the excellent work that John Bass, is our ambassador over the last three years, did in navigating this uncertain and highly charged environment. He’s been succeeded very ably by Dick Norland, who arrived a day and a half or two days before I arrived there last month. He has hit the ground running, has already developed a deep understanding of the – (chuckles) – of this new situation, has established a good rapport with Prime Minister-designate Ivanishvili.
And I think through his presence, he has gone out and around the country, even in this last week, to be present at some of the more contentious vote-counting sites to say the United States stands for an accurate count. We don’t stand for one side or the other. We stand for a process in which the votes get counted accurately. And he has – he has lived that policy very personally and very vividly in this last week on the ground in Georgia.
So along with our other – this – as a – what is technically called a noncareer appointment in the State Department, I’m here to tell you that the professional diplomats, the foreign service officers and the civil servants who’ve been involved in our Georgia policy, have been like-minded. This has been a very broad consensus in the U.S. government, that we wanted to embrace Georgia, help them to live up to their potential in this election process and beyond and all these other aspects of our cooperation.
This is, frankly, in terms of cooperation among the different parts of the State Department and with the other agencies this is as good as it gets in terms of having a nuanced policy that’s very simple, very clear, commitment to a process, respect the wishes of the Georgian people. And so far, it’s working. And it’s working because of the Georgians, not because of us. I mean, our policy has been to take our lead from the Georgian voters. And so far, the voters have lived up to their responsibility, and the political leaders now have an opportunity to do as much. So we’re going to stay engaged.
MR. R. WILSON: Great. Thank you very much, and thank you for those nice words about the foreign service. As a career diplomat, I appreciate it.
Tom de Waal, in the second row.
Q: Thanks, Ross. Tom de Waal from the Carnegie Endowment. I’d like to hear the views of the panel on a couple of issues. One is support for civil society. I think it’s now generally recognized it was a mistake – after the Rose Revolution, U.S. government, other funders as well scaled down support for civil society, put all the money into the government. And it took, I think, years for Georgian civil society to recover.
Second question is television, which I think we’ve all identified as one of Georgia’s biggest problems right up until the last couple of months, a very partisan television with very opaque ownership structures. There is, perhaps, potential in the public broadcaster, but it’s a very weak potential at the moment and possibly, you know, what we don’t want to see is this opaque, partisan TV switching from one ruling party to another ruling party. (Chuckles.) We want to see a genuine, competitive TV environment in Georgia. Thanks.
MR. MELIA: Yes, this is a lesson we learn over and over again, to not check the box and move on when there’s a decent election in an emerging democracy somewhere around the world. So keep us honest this time, and keep advising us to stay engaged on the broader array of ways that we can support this transition.
There is this thing called the Congress across town that appropriates money in varying levels from time to time and with different little fences around how it may be spent. But I think you’ve pointed directly to one of our – one of the things we need to do, which is to stay engaged more broadly in Georgia in assisting in the professionalization of the media and the continued strengthening of civil society, among other things.
As Ken said, I think the problem is going to matter a lot more going forward than it has maybe up until now. And it will be a more interesting Parliament with, you know, a 55 (percent)-45 (percent) split. So it will be – there’s a lot for us to do. Again, we should take our lead from Georgians on how we can best be helpful to them. And obviously Europeans can share some of the advisory burden with us too, as they may have more relevant experience in some ways.
MR. WOLLACK: I would say the issue was twofold: number one, a diminution of support for civil society, but also civil society was going through an identity crisis too, as happens in all postrevolutionary societies. The government drew in some of the most talented people in civil society. They did not get their sea legs for a number of years. And this was really the first election where civil society not only emerged to play an important role in negotiations with the government and the other parties, but they were able to form coalitions themselves: Transparency International, ISBAD (ph), GYLA – the Young Lawyers Association – so they demonstrated a great deal of maturity. So it was a little bit of a chicken and egg situation in 2004 and 2005. And ultimately, when civil society began to develop its own identity and its independence from government, I think the international community responded in the appropriate way. So I think, in a sense, they fed on each other a little bit.
And yes, I think there’s a big challenge in the media. I think on one hand – you know, this was – this was why I was talking about Charles Dickens. On the one hand, you did have alternative news in Channel 9, in Kavkasia, in Maestro, that provided, not with the same coverage as Imedi or Rustavi or – or Imedi, but it did provide an alternative to pro-government views, not as extensive. But it also reflected the polarization in the campaign. And as ugly as the rhetoric was in the campaign, it was as ugly in the media outlets, with the Georgian public broadcaster providing some balance in this regard.
The groups that did suffer the most in this were the other political parties. Because of the political financing, because of the media, they virtually got squeezed out in the process. They had no voice. They were able to campaign, and they received some public funding, which was positive, but they couldn’t compete with the – with the major – with the major competitors. And I think that they suffered the most in this regard. But I think a lot of thought has to go into the whole notion of media. I don’t have any great answers right now, but if it continues in this vein, it will contribute to political polarization.
And we had hoped, as I know the U.S. government did, and we made this recommendation that the “must carry” continue beyond the day before the election. The government agreed that they – people could do that voluntarily, but they couldn’t mandate it. But I think the “must carry” provision at least does provide a basis through which something can be done to promote a more open and professional media in the country.
MR. R. WILSON: Damon?
MR. D. WILSON: I would just add that – Tom, I think you were spot-on, because it’s not just sort of the cycle of where we are, but it’s the actual dollars that will be available on the table. And FREEDOM Support Act funds have been coming down for years now, and I think that trend is only going to probably accelerate. Within that, Georgia’s been treated well, on a relative basis, and can’t forget we had a billion-dollar package that didn’t go through things like civil society, but in the aftermath of 2008 war. So Georgia benefited quite a bit from U.S. assistance in the past few years.
But the trend lines are not good in terms of what the administration can even request, what the Hill can authorize. I think we’re likely to see funding continue to decline. And there used to be an instinct in government of – as the per capita GDP of some of these countries go up, our assistance goes down. And I think countries like Ukraine and Georgia are different. We’re not talking about health care projects that we need to be focused on. We are talking about consolidation of democratic practice and trends, where you want to continue to invest in civil society and media, regardless of Ukraine’s per capita GDP, for example.
So I think it’s going to take an effort of folks – I see some folks in the room who are up on the Hill who care a lot about this, some folks in the administration who care a lot of about this, and they’re going to have to work their tail off, with support from all of you, to ensure that these funds don’t get cannibalized as we go through a really difficult financial period here. And I also think it’s an opportunity for some that will be leaving government to not just necessarily go into political opposition, but some of them came from civil society, never joined a party. They can go back into civil society and be voices in a constructive way, providing a different set of checks and balances.
The media one is one of the most difficult; it’s one of the most important. And at the end of the day, having a – having the financial incentives right for a prosperous media market in Georgia is difficult given the size of the market, given a lot of those issues. And I don’t – I don’t know what all the answers are there, but it is one of the most pivotal areas going forward. And I don’t think there’s a pretty clear game plan on how to make media be a credible contributor to strengthening democratic practices over the medium term.
MR. R. WILSON: Thank you.
Other questions? In the back, please. If you’d wait for the microphone.
Q: My name is – (name inaudible) – I’m with Maestro TV Georgia.
Mr. Wollack, you like Charles Darwin (sic; Dickens), and I appreciate that, because I grew up on that. It’s a best of times, and a worst of times. It’s – what a timely, genius aphorism.
According to my viewers, the worst of times in Georgia were the times when your organization, three times in a row, were so way, way off the mark in your poll results. My question is what went wrong institutionally, and what would you do to fix this problem so people can, in other words, take you more seriously next time, one?
And then second question to Damon. Damon, I’m so impressed with your deep commitment to Georgia, Ukraine and to the entire region. But my question is to you, when you talk about Mr. Saakashvili, what a transformational leader he’s been, and yet in the same time, we talk about the nonexistence of democratic institutions, and we talk about the personal rule in Georgia. Is this sort of contradictory terms? He’s been a ruler for nine years, yet – and the biggest democrat – and yet we have no – all we have at best are hollow institutions.
And then third question to Secretary Melia. You mentioned, sir, that Georgia is a friendly state, but all we’ve been hearing from President Saakashvili: Georgia is an ally of the United States, strategic ally. But then Damon was talking about a strategic involvement, strategic dialogue. Could you elaborate on that? What is this strategic dialogue? And is Georgia a strategic partner for U.S. or not?
MR. R. WILSON: Three provocative questions. Ken, do you want to go first? (Laughter.)
MR. WOLLACK: Yeah. Well, on the polling – we don’t know whether the polling was wrong. Polling provides a snapshot of where the citizens – the views of citizen at a particular time. There were two, I think, phenomena in terms of our polling and the polling that was conducted by others. Number one, there was a high level of undecided voters, and we did not apportion the undecided voters as other pollsters do. And number two, we showed from our various polls that the electorate, the prospective electorate, was fluid. There were times when the spread – the gap – increased, and there were times when the gap came together. But I will say that the polling – it’s impossible to say whether it was inaccurate, because at the time, it may have been accurate. So I still believe in the methodology.
The exit polls were widely off the mark at the end of the – at the end of elections. They had no bearing to the paralevel tabulation or no bearing to what the official results were. There perhaps is a lesson for those conducting exit polls, I believe, because that’s not a snapshot at the time, that’s the – that’s the final outcome. And it created, I think, misconceptions among the electorate on what the – what the true results in – at least, in the proportional vote. But I still think the polls were accurate. We were not alone. But I think the fluidity of the vote and also the large undecided was consistent what with – with what probably happened with the prison scandal and the movement of the undecided vote toward Georgia Dream.
But also, too, a good deal of the polling asked questions about initiatives, about issues, and I think that those questions and those answers also were helpful to the political parties, because we briefed all the parties on the polling result and civil society. So issues that dealt with Mr. Ivanishvili’s citizenship, issues that dealt with issues that people cared about, all those things, I think, were quite instructive, and contributed to debate and dialogue in the country as well.
MR. R. WILSON: Thank you. Damon.
MR. D. WILSON: I just want to add to that. I’m not a pollster or expert in polls by any means, but just – NDI, the National Democratic Institute, has a tradition and a proven track record of integrity and a solid record on doing polls in Georgia, but in all sorts of countries where it acts. There’s no hidden agenda, there’s no driving force there. And so I just want to just say on – you know, I don’t work for Ken, I don’t have a relationship with NDI in that respect, but I have utmost respect for the work that NDI does.
I think probably – again, I’m not a pollster, but from those I’ve talked to about what happened, I mean, this was – this was a bit of a surprise. What happened? And I’ve heard many have said, there really was one of the largest swings they’ve seen in electorate over the – over a couple of week period, which could speak to a little bit of why we may have seen some of these poll numbers before. And it wasn’t NDI alone; there were lots of other polls in the same type of spot.
Speaking to the impact, perhaps the galvanizing impact of the prison scandal, and also, that many of those that were discounted through traditional polling because they hadn’t voted in the past or weren’t considered part of the electorate actually did turn out and vote and voted disproportionately, overwhelmingly for Georgia Dream in a way that ended up skewing some of those, the sampling size as well.
I’m not an expert, but I do trust the integrity of NDI’s work. And I think it’s important for any emerging society to embrace that sense of transparency. You’re not going to always agree with polls or with opinions or with whatever. And I think it’s the strength and testament of any political actor to be open to that and to welcome that, that kind of scrutiny in their – in their society.
On my point, if you – you know, I had the opportunity to visit Georgia before President Saakashvili was in office. And if you look at over that course of that nine years, is Georgia perfect today? Well, absolutely not. There are lots of issues that we’re all talking about and concerned about in Georgia.
But Georgia has gone from a failed state, literally a failed state, where we had concerns about rogue elements and terrorism; we saw bands operating, a mafia, criminal, organized crime – a failed state to a young democracy. It’s a pretty dramatic transformation of a country, and that’s – you know, President Saakashvili had a major role to play in that. So did many others in Georgia. The Georgia people had a huge role to play in that. That’s something all Georgians can be proud of how far that country has come.
So I’m not going – I’m comfortable talking about President Saakashvili’s legacy in that respect. But it’s not to personalize it for him. This is – I mean, this is such an incredible opportunity for all the Georgian people, for all the Georgian political leaders to be a part of the transformation of their society. And now Georgian Dream leader Ivanishvili, he has an – he has the – not only the opportunity, the responsibility to build on that, and where you think the democratic practices and institutions are hollow, to strengthen those over the course of his time in government. And that’s what he’ll be judged on. And so I think we have to see this as an evolutionary process. I don’t make my statements in black or white terms.
And I’ll stop there.
MR. R. WILSON: Great, thank you.
MR. MELIA: Not sure what the question was.
MR. R. WILSON: It was a reference to Georgia, a friendly state, ally, strategic partner – take that apart a little bit. Is that –
MR. MELIA: I don’t know what the question was. Yes, I said those things, yes, I mean them –
MR. R. WILSON: Would you – do you want to –
MR. MELIA: – yes, Georgia is a friendly partner of the United States.
MR. R. WILSON: Do you want to just briefly restate the third question?
MR. MELIA: What was your – what’s the point of your question?
Q: Your statement was Georgia is a friendly state. Mr. Wilson mentioned that Georgia is a strategic – is in the process of being in a strategic dialogue with United – with – U.S. is in a strategic dialogue. Saakashvili has been saying for nine years that Georgia is U.S.’s strategic partner. Just – I’d like you to clarify for my viewers, is Georgia U.S’s strategic –
MR. MELIA: The difference between friendly, ally, partner, strategic?
Q: – yeah, what is the difference? Is it strategic ally, or what is it? Thank you.
MR. MELIA: Yes, Georgia is all those things. And we’re going to continue down that road of building out different aspects of our relationship – a security relationship, a trade relationship, a political partnership – that enables us to, you know – as Georgians find it useful, for us to contribute to strengthening their economy, strengthening their security and strengthening their political system. That’s what it means to be a strategic partner, friend and ally. And so that’s the course we’re on.
And as I said earlier in response to another question, nothing in that changes with this election, because our partnerships are not with individual people in other countries, they’re with the governments. And the government is going through a transition now. There will be some different faces and names in government offices. Until something else happens, those relationships continue government to government and increasingly, society to society. So that’s where we are.
MR. D. WILSON: Ross, can I just add one point to that, because I think – in terms of confusion for your viewers on what you label this, I mean, Georgia’s not a treaty ally today. It’s not a member of the alliance, we don’t have a bilateral treaty, we – but the lesson of NATO enlargement is if you want to be an ally of the United States, you act like an ally of the United States. And you become an ally-like partner of the United States before the formal part comes into play. So I think it’s completely appropriate for Georgian leaders to refer themselves as such, to do that. And through their (testament of ?) the actions you’ve seen from Afghanistan and across the board with the alliance, Georgia’s acted that way.
Finally, I think at the end of the Bush administration and the beginning of the Obama administration, the two administrations did the same thing, basically, and endorsed this idea of a strategic partnership council with Georgia. And it was very significant because this was in the context of the wake of a war, Russian invasion of Georgia – a decision at Bucharest to – that was perhaps ambiguous – to signal on a bilateral basis that the United States is stepping up its commitment to Georgia on a bilateral basis through a strategic partnership council that will provide a framework for interaction with this country that we consider important across security, economic and civil-society spheres. And it helped provide a structure to the relationship, which was meant to send both a signal of the relationship’s importance but also to provide a structure for substance behind that, too. And I think that’s a testament to the value that the United States, both in the Bush and Obama administrations, placed on the country.
MR. : Well said.
MR. R. WILSON: We have – we have time for a couple questions. Over here in the back.
Q: Thank you. Alex van Oss, Foreign Service Institute. What impact might our elections in the United States have on our relations with Georgia or on Georgia itself?
MR. MELIA: I don’t think they will, fundamentally. I think, as Damon just said, you know, the America-Georgia relationship predates this administration. And if the administration were to change, I don’t think there’s an automatic change in that relationship. As on most aspects of our foreign policy, there’s broad bipartisan consensus. And I think that’s certainly true in the case of Georgia, that the broad range of interests and commitments that we have between ourselves and the Georgians would continue even in a Romney administration. But others may have more –
MR. WOLLACK: I would only say, you know, looking at polls – whether it’s ours or other polls – Georgia perhaps is the only country in the region where there is an overwhelming desire on the part of the citizenry to be part of the West, to – for European integration, for NATO. And the numbers are overwhelming. And so there is an affinity that impacts the American people, I think, and the political elite in our country. And I think it’s a shared affinity because of that. And that doesn’t change with the – with the government in Georgia, and I don’t think it changes with the – with the government here. And so much of that relationship has been bipartisan, and I anticipate that that will continue. Even the Senate delegation – and Chad is here from Senator Shaheen’s office – that sent, I think – the Senate delegation with Senator Shaheen and Senator Risch – I think that sent a strong bipartisan message about our support for Georgia and support for the democratic process there.
MR. R. WILSON: One more. Here in the back.
Q: Lindsey Holtgris (ph) from the European Parliament Liaison Office. I was here about two weeks ago, I think, when we were talking pre-Georgian elections. And one of the members of the panel said they didn’t think that the prison scandal would have a great effect on the relations, because although it was a scandal, it was by no means a new revelation. The public knew about the conditions in the prisons. So I was just wondering if you could comment on whether or not the prison scandal did have an effect on the elections.
MR. R. WILSON: An impact on the election?
MR. R. WILSON: Yeah. Can you – you addressed this a little bit in your earlier remarks. Anything you want to add?
MR. WOLLACK: Yeah. I just think it had a huge impact, for the reasons I enumerated before. And I think it had an – and it was interesting, too; I think everybody knew about the prison abuse scandal. I mean, it didn’t matter if you were in Tbilisi or in the most rural parts of the country. I mean, this had an impact on the entire population. And most of the people that I have talked to in both camps and among analysts and observers – everyone agrees that that had a profound impact. What exactly? I can’t reduce it to numbers. But it did have a – have a huge impact.
MR. R. WILSON: Anybody else? Damon?
MR. D. WILSON: I was – I was quite surprised at how significant of an impact it had. It took me by surprise. It clearly, clearly did, from every indication we’ve seen. In many respects, those who follow Georgia, or even anecdotally in Georgia – people talked about the problem of the prisons. They’ve been reported in the Human Rights Report. People in Georgia knew about the prisons. So I underestimated the significance of how the population would react to that, because I think it visualized something that many people may have talked about or knew, and I think it did have an impact that we underestimated.
Just – since we’re wrapping up, I would just say the – a final thing in response to that last question we had about the bipartisan nature of Georgia policy. The U.S. policy towards the transformation of countries in Central and Eastern Europe, former adversaries – turning them – former adversaries into allies – has succeed because it’s been fueled by a bipartisan consensus. And if NATO enlargement, if some of these issues had degenerated and become completely partisan issues, our policies probably would have failed.
And I think that’s partly an important lesson from recent history, but it’s also – I mean, it’s partly why we did, with Senator Shaheen and Senator Graham, this bipartisan task force on Georgia with a real effort to try to keep together a coalition of folks on the Hill and this town that believe the United States has an important role to play, for its own interests and for its moral leadership in the world, to help small societies succeed in their transformations to free-market democracies. I think that needs to remain something that is a bipartisan commitment in this town if we’re going to have successful policy. So I just would add that piece as a plug for our report, Ross.
MR. R. WILSON: Great. Thank you very much, Damon.
There are two takeaways I have from this. As someone who’s been involved in Georgia – with Georgia throughout the last 20 years of its independence, I’ve always been struck by how dramatic and sometimes raucous Georgia looks at any given time. And certainly the events of the last – the last week or so have, I think, demonstrated that. The second takeaway is Georgia’s always been a place, as I think somebody else noted, that gets a lot of interest and a lot of attention in Washington. The very large crowd that we have here today, I think, demonstrates that.
Let me thank all of you for coming. Let me thank Eurasia Center Assistant Director Laura Linderman for taking the lead in putting this together. And please join me in thanking our three panelists. (Applause.)