Opening Remarks at the Center for the National Interest
Thank you for inviting me here to speak about U.S.-Georgia relations. Let me start with an obvious statement for anyone who has ever visited the Caucasus: Georgia is a remarkable place. As someone who first worked on U.S.-Georgian relations before the end of the Soviet Union and helped to establish diplomatic relations with Tbilisi in 1992, it is hard not to be impressed by what the people of Georgia have achieved in the past 20 years, and how far they have come since those difficult first days of independence. The past decade in particular has seen impressive gains; corruption has been tamed; the police have been reformed; and Georgians have public institutions that serve them in a way that is unknown elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, and in the wider world beyond. The elections of October 1st proved that Georgian democracy is more than a slogan, and the ongoing transition from one governing party to another is setting a standard for new democracies everywhere. Problems and challenges still abound, of course, and it would be foolish to declare that Georgia has completed the goals it has set for itself for transformation into a fully democratic, free society that is integrated with the Euro-Atlantic community. But my bottom-line reaction to the events of the past month is resoundingly positive. Georgia and the Georgian people continue to impress.
I would like to use the few minutes I have today to talk about U.S. policy in the run up to the Georgian elections. I will then share my observations of the transition under way that I saw first hand last week in Tbilisi. Then, I’ll give a couple thoughts about where we are going in the U.S.-Georgia relationship.
Let me begin by trying to dispel a persistent myth among the many commentators on this election that the U.S. took sides in this election. We said many times in the run up to the elections and it’s worth repeating here: the United States did not have a favored candidate in these elections. Or if we did, our candidate was Georgian democracy, and the “Georgian project” that saw Georgia conclusively distinguish itself as a regional leader in democratic reform.
Civil society and NGOs played a key role in this election by serving as advocates for and monitors of a credible process and by shedding light on concerns about the fairness of the pre-election environment. The United States supported civil society organizations to monitor the media environment and observe elections across the country.
We were pleased to see the citizens of Georgia participate peacefully and actively in the October 1st parliamentary elections. This competitive election produced an outcome that represents an important milestone on Georgia’s democratic development path. It wasn’t a perfect election, but we fully agree with the OSCE/ODIHR election observation mission’s preliminary assessment that the elections “marked an important step in consolidating the conduct of democratic elections, although certain key issues remain to be addressed.” While it is too soon to draw conclusions about the historical significance of this election, two points seem evident now. First, the Georgian people were ready for a change, and they got it. Second, the resulting parliament – with no party achieving a constitutional majority on their own – means that the winners, the Georgian Dream coalition led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, will not have carte blanche to change the constitution at will or to fast-track legislation with limited opposition buy-in, as the previous government did. This emerging political arrangement with increased checks and balances is good and healthy for Georgia’s democratic development. The path ahead may not be easy, as we know from our own experience living in a multi-party system, but it is well worth the effort.
Our policy, as President Obama and Secretary Clinton have said a number of times over the past year, is to support a peaceful, democratic transfer of power in Georgia. And that is exactly what is happening this week with the seating of the new Parliament on Sunday and the upcoming ratification of the new Cabinet let by Bidzina Ivanishvili, likely tomorrow.
For our part, as the results of the election became clear, Secretary Clinton called President Saakashvili to praise him for fostering open and competitive elections and for his statesman-like response. She also congratulated Prime Minister-designate Ivanishvili on his coalition’s victory, thanked him for his pledge to work with his political opponents. The Georgian leadership — including the incoming Prime Minister, current President and Prime Minister, and transition team — deserve high praise for shepherding Georgia through this unprecendented time of change.
What is remarkable, and what I saw last week in Tbilisi, is how, after a very bare-knuckles campaign, both sides have worked together to ensure a smooth transition. The transition appears to be going well, and the two sides are cooperating constructively. The meeting between Ivanishvili and Saakashvili shortly after the election was an important symbol of cooperation going forward. The quick establishment and regular meetings of the bipartisan transition team is also a positive step. Cohabitation will be a new experience for Georgia, but these initial actions indicate that the Georgian leadership is up for the challenge. The United States was proud to support the Georgian people’s democratic aspirations in the run up to and during the elections, and we pledge our continued support for Georgia in this time of transition.
As we go forward with our bilateral relationship after the Georgian elections, I think the best word to summarize our approach, and that of the Georgian Government, will be continuity. We have a strong bilateral relationship and will look forward to continuing to build on this solid foundation with the new leadership elected by the Georgian people.
We have a very useful framework for our continuing dialogue with Georgia: the Charter on Strategic Partnership and the associated U.S.-Georgia Strategic Partnership Commission. This dialogue is built on four pillars or areas of cooperation: 1) further strengthening Georgia’s democratic institutions; 2) deepening our cooperation on regional and global security issues; 3) boosting economic ties; and 4) deepening people-to-people cultural exchanges. Let me give a few details of where we are going in each area. We plan to hold regularly-scheduled sessions of the Commission and its working groups, starting as early as next month with members of the new government.
In the run up to the elections, strengthening of democratic institutions and processes in Georgia was a key area of engagement between our two countries. In frequent meetings with Georgian Government officials, opposition leaders and civil society, President Obama, Secretary Clinton and other senior U.S. officials highlighted the importance of a democratic process for Georgia’s future. Indeed, two weeks before election day, my colleague Tom Melia led an unusual four-agency pre-election U.S. delegation to Georgia. The delegation included senior officials from USAID and the Justice and Defense Departments to underscore that an election with integrity would enhance Georgian-American cooperation across the broad array of issues and priorities that we share.
Elections are an important step, but the work of democracy-building begins before and extends beyond election day to include other key pillars of democracy, such as labor rights, judicial independence, respect for rule of law and due process, media independence and access. As I mentioned earlier, the October 1st elections were important and good, but not perfect. We will use our dialogue to work with the new government to help address some areas for improvement cited by the international monitoring groups, including access to balanced media sources, unequal implementation of campaign finance laws, instances of intimidation during the campaign, inequality of the vote and abuse of administrative resources. The United States stands ready to support efforts to address these issues looking toward the presidential election in 2013.
Georgians may not agree among themselves on many issues, but on one core goal there is very broad support. Like President Saakashvili, Prime Minister-designate Ivanishvili and his team have been clear that they want to continue on the path to Euro-Atlantic integration and eventual NATO membership.
The United States strongly supports Georgia’s NATO aspirations. As the Alliance declared in Bucharest and affirmed in subsequent summits, Georgia will become a member of NATO, and we share a common goal of preparing Georgia to join the Alliance and supporting it in this aspiration. We are working closely with Georgia to assist its reform agenda to ensure it meets NATO membership standards.
Georgia is already making important contributions to Alliance goals through its contributions to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. With the deployment of a second battalion this month, Georgia becomes the largest non-NATO contributor to the ISAF mission.
In addition to our efforts through NATO, we have a long standing security cooperation relationship through the Strategic Partnership Commission. President Obama and President Saakashvili agreed in January to build upon existing successful programs to help the Georgian military continue its reform and defense modernization efforts that support Georgia’s self-defense, sustain its work with ISAF in Afghanistan, and help it operate more effectively with NATO. We look forward to meeting with Georgia’s new defense officials to hear their views on security cooperation.
Let me add a word about Georgian-Russian relations. Our support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders remains unchanged and will not waver. We continue to call on the Russian Federation to comply with the commitments it made in 2008 to withdraw to previous military positions and to allow international observers on both sides of the Administrative Boundary Line. At the same time, we strongly support an improvement in relations between Georgia and Russia. We see no contradiction between a vibrant and healthy Georgian-American relationship and a vibrant and healthy relationship between Georgia and Russia. We worked hard last year to bridge the gaps between Georgia and Russia to enable Georgia to agree to Russian accession to the WTO. The WTO accession package, ably negotiated by our Swiss colleagues, included a trade normalization agreement that is now coming into effect. Those, along with reopening of border crossings and direct air links, and the recent Georgian lifting of visa restrictions on Russian citizens, were positive first steps toward increasing mutual confidence and reducing tensions and suspicions on both sides. We believe that much more is possible, and we will support the new Georgian Government in its efforts to improve and enhance its relations with all of its neighbors.
In the economic sphere, we hope to continue the enhanced economic relationship our two presidents agreed on in January, when they announced the launch of a high-level dialogue to strengthen trade ties, including the possibility of a free trade agreement. This High Level Trade and Investment Dialogue was launched in May to explore a range of mechanisms to continue strengthening trade relations between our countries, an updated investment agreement, and other measures that could facilitate trade and investments. We look forward to continuing this discussion with the new government.
We also look forward to continuing our engagement with the Government of Georgia to strengthen workers’ rights. We were pleased to see that the newly elected government has identified the revision of the labor code as one of its priorities as this will be an important step in addressing the concerns reflected in the Generalized System of Preferences petition filed by the AFL-CIO alleging workers rights violations.
Over our twenty years of bilateral relations, the United States and Georgia have increased ties between our nations, thanks in large part to professional and academic exchange opportunities for Georgian citizens. The recent government transition highlights the fruits of these programs. Fourteen nominees for ministerial and parliamentary posts in the new government are U.S. Government program alumni. We have found that our exchange program alumni may not always agree with us.
However, they generally share our commitment to promoting democracy, the rule of law and human rights, as well as basic freedoms and responsibilities of government, including freedom of speech and assembly. So in short, alumni are excellent partners, and we look forward to exploring other ways to expand our cultural and exchange cooperation at the next people-to-people working group meeting at the end of November in Tbilisi.
Let me conclude with where I began. The elections of three weeks ago and the peaceful transfer of power underway right now are a remarkable achievement for the people of Georgia. The United States is proud to have played a role in helping Georgia to build its democratic system and to take big strides toward creating a fully open and democratic society. We know there will likely be bumps in the road ahead, and democracy is by nature messy and unpredictable. We will stand by the people of Georgia and their leaders as they confront those challenges. I am convinced that we have great cause to be optimistic about what the future holds both for Georgia and for U.S.-Georgia relations. Thank you.
Cross posted from IIP Digital.