Press Roundtable on Georgia's Democratic Transition
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I’ll take that as a cue to be brief in my opening remarks, but maybe just say a couple of things about the meetings I’ve had over the past couple of days here and first of all, how delighted I am to be back in Georgia.
I had a lot of meetings over the past couple of days with the current and former Speakers of the Parliament, with the Prime Minister, the Defense Minister, with the Foreign Minister, with the Special Envoy for Russia, with the National Security Secretary to the President, and I think tomorrow morning I’ll see President Saakashvili before I leave town, so it’s a comprehensive visit and as you see, it was people on both sides of the political spectrum which was obviously important to me to be able to do that.
I told them what we think, which is that the October election is potentially a hugely important development for Georgia’s democracy. It was a widely free and fair election that led to a peaceful transition of power, which is in many ways a model for other countries -- unprecedented I think here in Georgia -- and I encouraged both sides to continue to work together to ensure that that peaceful and democratic transition moves forward in Georgia’s interests, and I strongly encouraged both sides to be pragmatic as they deal with each other.
That is particularly true when it comes to the sensitive question of the arrests that we’ve seen over the past days and weeks. I underscored that the United States is committed, like we hope Georgia is, to the rule of law, and that anybody who is guilty of crimes should be fully investigated and if necessary prosecuted; but I also stressed how important it is to avoid both the reality and the perception of selective prosecution and the absolutely critical importance of ensuring full transparency and due process to anybody who is under suspicion or investigation.
Nobody wants to see what looks like selective prosecutions or retributions -- that wouldn’t serve Georgia well and I think the international community is paying close attention as we in Washington are paying close attention to how this develops, and for Georgia to continue down the path to Euro-Atlantic integration that it seeks, I think it’s going to need to be absolutely scrupulous in making sure that due process and transparency are applied as the rule of law is implemented.
I was reassured to hear from the Prime Minister and from the Foreign Minister and others that Georgia remains committed to the Euro-Atlantic integration process and to strong relations with the United States and on my behalf I was able to clearly stress how committed we are to continuing to support Georgia in terms of our defense relationship, in terms of the Georgian economy which has really made a lot of progress over the years, and something we want to support, and in terms of this democratic transition which is the key to the future.
I expressed gratitude for Georgia’s contributions in Afghanistan, the sacrifices that the Georgian people, the Georgian military have made towards our common effort there.
So I think we have a strong bilateral relationship with this country and it really is with the country and the people of Georgia -- it’s not with one particular side. It’s a critically important time, this period of cohabitation and democratic transition, but I’m confident and I’m encouraged by what I heard from the Prime Minister and others about their commitment to this constitutional democracy and for the United States, we look forward to continuing to work very closely with Georgia.
Why don’t I stop there and see what questions you might have.
QUESTION: I prefer to speak in Georgian. [In Georgian.]
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Thank you. Those are both good and important questions.
On the first question of how we know or what criteria we use to decide if something is selective prosecutions -- it’s difficult to define exactly what criteria to use and there’s clearly a fine line between on one hand not implementing the rule of law and not prosecuting anybody, which would be wrong; but on the other, arresting and prosecuting large numbers of people without due process, and all I can say maybe is we’ll know it when we see it or if we see it, which is to say if all of the or any arrests that take place are clearly done with due process for the individuals concerned, full transparency, so people can see why they’re being arrested or why they’re prosecuted, full presentation of the evidence, full opportunity for legal defense, no unnecessary preventive detention, all of the basic principles of the proper justice system. I think if it proceeds in such a way the international community and the United States would recognize that this is simply implementing the rule of law.
But if on the other hand you see large numbers of people arrested without full transparency, without full explanation as to why, without full and fair presentation of the evidence and opportunities for defense, then it’s going to look like political retribution, and as I said, I don’t think that would serve Georgia well.
Nobody wants to see or get the perception that what this is about is retribution against political enemies rather than the rule of law, so that’s why I think transparency is most critical -- it’s not possible to just take somebody’s word for it: you know, trust us, these people are guilty; trust us, they deserve it. The process needs to be fair and transparent and the results need to be fair and transparent.
The impression that an election leads to one side being able to impose, take advantage of its power and impose its will on the other wouldn’t serve Georgia’s democracy well.
In terms of Moscow, yes, we have said that we in the United States have pursued a better relationship with Russia and one of the things we’ve disagreed about is Georgia. We always said that we would be clear about areas of differences as well as areas of agreement, and we’ve differed on Georgia because we in the United States support Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, which we believe Russia has violated, and we believe that its continued presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is in violation of the August 2008 agreements, and we clearly don’t support –- we and the vast majority of the international community reject the notion of independence for Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
I think, and from my discussions here in the past couple of days I can say that we have the same view of this as the new Georgian government. We have the same red lines; they also naturally support Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity; they reject recognition; they would like to see Russian forces depart; and they believe that Georgia has the right to join whatever security alliance it wants, which is what we said right from the start in terms of our relationship with Russia. Independent, sovereign countries can choose their own security alliances. Hopefully they’ll do so with respect to their neighbors and not in any way in a hostile way to their neighbors and we’d like to see good Georgian relations with Russia just as we want better U.S. relations with Russia. So in that sense –- and I had an excellent discussion with the Foreign Minister just before coming here -- I think we have the same view and Georgia can continue to count on our support when it comes to the relationship with Russia.
QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up question, I don’t want to take much time. Again, the continuation of this whole detention process. The parliament is also planning to set up a commission which still seems to be in the air but hopefully they’ll get around to it. But this investigation which might take place either by the prosecutor’s office or the parliamentary investigative committee, one way or the other, but the format is not that important, actually might be to expose some really high-ranking officials. It can go really high up. Of course it becomes a global question. Even though the process might be fair and transparent, it might actually really lead up to some high-ranking officials, especially not just with criminal cases but also with financial fraud cases.
So do you see that as trouble? Do you think that might contribute to some kind of political crisis here? I understand this is, you are confined by diplomatic rhetoric, but if you can be frank on this I’d appreciate that.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Thank you. It’s a critical issue, and the government I think will have to -- the current Georgian government -- will have to be very sensitive to the perception that it’s not about implementing the rule of law, but about retribution of its enemies. I think it was clearly a very difficult political campaign, that’s fair enough -- that’s what democracy is all about -- and now is the time for Georgia to come together as a country and for the two sides to show that they can work together. We’re encouraged that they’re talking to each other and I heard renewed commitments to do so while I was here.
It wouldn’t serve Georgia well if the international community gets the impression that rather than peaceful transition of power within the rules of the game of democracy, it’s a question of who’s up and who’s down, and that’s the balance that the government is going to have to strike as it absolutely rightly seeks to hold people accountable for their actions according to Georgian law, but also seeks to avoid giving the impression internationally and domestically that it’s going to use its power to exact retribution on other political leaders.
Any prosecution should absolutely be about the law and not about politics. We’ve seen in other countries where it appears to be about politics and what that leads to is deep division within the country which almost becomes irreparable, and isolation of the country and the international community. Instead of going there I think, as I said, now is the time for Georgia to try to come together and show that it really is a democracy where you can have legitimate political differences, and even nasty political battles, but they don’t lead to one side using its power against the other.
QUESTION: I want to ask about a different question. One of the issues raised during Georgia’s negotiation on Membership Action Plan to NATO was the level of democracy here and the parliamentary elections, which led to peaceful transfer of power, how you assess it, how it can help us to speed up this process, and can it also affect any negotiations with United States on free trade agreement or visa facilitation?
The second question would be what is your advice to new Georgian Government, what it needs to do in order to fully utilize this momentum, not to spoil it. What it needs to do and what it needs to avoid to do.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Thank you.
I do think that the evolution of Georgia’s democracy in the wake of the elections is absolutely relevant to questions like NATO membership and MAP and visa facilitation and free trade arrangement in the sense, maybe not absolutely directly, but in the sense that when countries decide what sort of relationship they want to have with Georgia, or when alliances decide what sort of relationship, they’re asking themselves what kind of country is Georgia. So whether it’s specifically for NATO’s MAP or NATO membership in general, I think NATO countries are asking themselves do we want this country in this democratic alliance? Does it deserve to be? Can we expect it to uphold the standards of democracy and stability that we expect, so it’s absolutely relevant how it’s following up from its elections. Again, to be concrete about this question of arrests, I think if the perception was that the parties in Georgia will not follow the rules of the game and work within constitutional provisions, but instead it would just be a question of who has power. There would be skepticism about whether you want that sort of country within NATO, and so I do think the members of NATO have been watching very carefully how this plays out and their judgment as to whether the process with NATO should move forward, whether specifically on a MAP or just more generally will very much be affected on the state of democracy, and it’s one of the features of this alliance that democracy is a key criterion.
Maybe during the Cold War, it didn’t matter if you were a potential security contributor during the Cold War -- and there were members of NATO during the Cold War that were not the most pristine democracies. We put that aside because of overriding security interests. Now the standards are different and higher -- it’s a democratic alliance, so it matters very much what the state of democracy looks like and for these questions you asked about visa facilitation and free trade as well. I think members of the U.S. Congress will be watching very carefully as they decide do they support closer economic ties or security ties at the state of democracy.
So it’s not just about Georgia’s domestic affairs, it’s about how Georgia gets on with the rest of the world.
QUESTION: [In Georgian.]
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Thanks. Two questions on U.S.-Georgia, and first NATO and the election.
As I said before, I do think the state of Georgia’s democracy and the election is relevant for the NATO debate, and that’s why we were so encouraged to see a free and fair election and peaceful transition of power. It needs to be sustained, but just for example, had the election not been free or fair, if the OSCE and ODIHR observed it and said the government manipulated it, it wasn’t free and fair, I think I can pretty confidently tell you, your NATO prospects would be undermined. NATO members would say -- not interested. NATO now has the luxury not to take in countries that are not democratic, and I think that would have been a real setback, or if you had a free and fair election but the government didn’t like the results and didn’t let it take place, there too I think your NATO path would have been very much obstructed by that.
On the contrary, it was boosted by what people saw to be a free and fair democratic election and peaceful transition of power, and if you can consolidate that by avoiding this perception of retribution or by consolidating constitutional democracy, I think NATO’s support for Georgia in NATO will only grow.
In terms of the U.S.-Georgia relationship, we’re very pleased with how the Charter and Strategic Partnership has developed, and I think now it’s starting to show that it wasn’t just about two administrations -- of course it was started under the Bush administration and the Saakashvili administration, but we showed in the United States that the Obama Administration remained committed to it and we’ve had a number of meetings including at the level of Secretary Clinton and a number of meetings of the Democracy Working Group, several of which I’ve chaired, and now I believe that the government of Mr. Ivanishvili is committed to it as well -- so we’re saying that this is really about the United States and Georgia and not particular governments. So we’re using that I think Charter on Strategic Partnership very well on security, on democracy, on an economy and the working groups have continued to meet and it’s a useful tool for advancing our relationship.
QUESTION: [In Georgian.]
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: As I said, we’re watching the process carefully -- I think it’s too soon to reach any final judgments. The election was only how many days ago? We were, we have been, encouraged by the earliest developments because the people spoke, the majority recognized the outcome, the President recognized the outcome, he acknowledges that this should be a new majority, they formed a government. That’s what happens in democratic countries; we know it’s not easy -- we just had an election ourselves, and it’s not easy for the side that loses to accept, in our case you had a bit of both because we have cohabitation as well with the Republican majority in the House of Representatives and the Executive Branch are Democrat, the Senate is Democrat, so we know what this is like, but that’s what happens in democracies: the people speak and even if it’s a close election, the result gets implemented, and we were encouraged not just that President Saakashvili acknowledged the result of the election, but the new government pledged to cooperate and we’ve seen, even while I’m here I’ve heard talk of meetings between the two sides and the Prime Minister said just the other day that he was prepared to work with President Saakashvili within cohabitation and hopefully afterwards.
So we’ve been encouraged by a number of signs, a number of critical and fundamental signs, but as I say, it’s too soon to reach any final judgment because we’re also paying attention to how it evolves. There’s still some concern that power could be used for political purposes and not just implementing the rule of law, and that’s why I strongly encouraged the Prime Minister and others that I saw to be as scrupulous as possible in showing Georgians of whatever political stripe and showing the world that they’re committed to Georgia’s democratic evolution, and it really is, it can be win/win for the sides in Georgia just as it can be lose/lose. If it becomes a political battle outside the bounds of constitutionality everyone will lose, including those who are trying to use the power that they may have won in election -- they’ll lose because Georgia won’t succeed as a country. But both sides can win if the democracy is strengthened, and that’s why we try to be supportive and we’re watching the situation carefully.
QUESTION: [In Georgian.]
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Again, I think I would just say the same as I’ve said on some other comments and questions, that there is a link between Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations and the state of democracy. I do think that leaders in NATO and the European Union and in the United States are paying close attention to developments here and no democracy is perfect, but the more Georgians can do to show their cohabitation, as difficult as it is, can work, the more they will do to consolidate their relations with NATO, the United States and the European Union.
QUESTION: [In Georgian]
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Let me just clarify one thing: I don’t think I said anything yesterday about a joint visit with the President and the Prime Minister to Washington. I don’t believe that’s -- Okay, I can clarify that I don’t believe anybody is envisaging a joint visit. I think the Prime Minister is looking to go to Washington -- he said early on that he wanted to make an early visit to Washington. It’s something that we welcome, but we obviously welcome their cooperation as much as they can work together, but I think that may be a misunderstanding. But otherwise, cohabitation, we’ve seen cohabitation in democracies before: we’ve seen it in France with the President and the Prime Minister from different parties; we see it in a different way in the United States with the legislature and the executive, and we know how difficult it is. The leaders don’t have to like each other but they have to respect the constitution and the rule of law and the public expects them to work in the national interest. I think that’s just what we expect of Georgia.
There was an election that led to a new government. While under the constitution, the President is still in office, and until constitutional changes are made, has the same constitutional authorities that he had previously, and this period of evolution, it’s even more complicated in Georgia because you’re not just changing the government, but you’re actually changing constitutional authorities. To execute that process successfully would be tremendously to Georgia’s credit, and people, going back to our previous discussion of NATO and the EU, will notice that this is a mature, maturing democracy that can do this.
It’s a challenge even in countries that have been democratic for longer than Georgia has, including the ones I mentioned. But that’s what we’re expecting, and that’s what I was able to say to both sides while I was here, and as difficult as it will be, if they can pull that off and show that they’re willing to work with each other, even if they may have different ambitions or political priorities, they will both be serving the national interests very well.
Thanks, everybody, for coming.