For eight years, long before the 2008 war, I served as Ambassador of Georgia to Washington. At the time, the main issue at hand was capacity-building: to think in terms of policies, allocating competencies and tasks, preparing the normative ground, pinpointing the “hardware” required, implementing and evaluating. Had this state-building exercise failed, which it would have without US support, any discussion about democracy or strategic foresight would have been futile. Governance and democracy are about process. The Georgian process owes a lot to hard work and good people with whom I worked closely during my tenure in Washington.
Washington today is essentially dealing with processes and structures in Tbilisi that largely are of its own making. People perhaps differ in terms of political conviction, vision and priorities with the previous administration, but they belong to a generation whose orientation is instinctively western. The fact that Washington fails to see this is a shock for Tbilisi. Having been around long enough to remember the time when there was no relation between Washington and Tbilisi, I can only say to old friends that it is dangerous when a number of sound minds fail to learn from their defeats; but, it is absolutely tragic when they fail to learn from their victories. Georgia just elected a new government, which although unprecedented, should not be scary to old friends that have been paving the way for this very possibility.
In this context, the recent amendment to the “Defense Authorization Act” by Congressman Turner did a disservice to Georgian-US relations and Washington’s interests in the South Caucasus, not only because of its substance but also because of its timing. The amendment hails Georgia as a highly valued ally, paying tribute to seven casualties suffered by the Georgian forces in Afghanistan, whose memory was stained by a less than respectful article in a leading American newspaper, that is, little more than a week ago. The two events, although not connected, indicate a trend in US public opinion that Georgians cannot fail to take note of. Alas, the bill has passed and is now heading to the Senate.
Make no mistake, Congressman Turner is a friend of Georgia and has amply demonstrated his commitment to the development of our bilateral relations. As a Chairman of the US Delegation to NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly, he has exhibited continuous, sustained and unequivocal support for Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic trajectory, as well as doing his utmost to ensure that Tbilisi receives the technical and financial assistance required to respond to this challenge. This is not a matter of doubting intentions. What is called into question are the facts that informed his decision, which failed to take into account both the possible diplomatic repercussions and the possible effects on the Georgian democratization project as such.
Congressman Turner’s amendment hailed the peaceful transfer of power achieved in October 2012 as a democratization milestone, while blatantly accusing the Georgian government of politically motivated and vindictive lustration campaign against its political opponents, going as far as casting doubt over the forthcoming presidential elections in October 2013. Ironically, had the opposition taken to the street, instead of insisting on the often tampered with ballot box, such objections might have been mitigated by the sanctified aura of a “revolution”. This has been done before; the previous government, and President Saakashvili personally, found political freedom and ample international support and, alas, kicked off the ladder for people who might contest its power. Nonetheless, if there was any achievement in October 2012, it is precisely that this new transfer of power was – against all odds and expectations – democratic. Make no mistake: in a democracy that is emergent rather than consolidated, sticking to process is not a challenge for the fainthearted.
Congressman Turner did not empower the process. Framing the issue of prosecution vis a vis former dignitaries as “persecution”, his initiative did not touch upon the substance of the case made against those arrested, albeit, not convicted. In principle, Tbilisi does not object to rigid or even invasive monitoring. We cannot object to something that under different circumstances we would have wished for! This is precisely the point.
Over the last few years, a vindictive campaign against the current prime minister, who was stripped of his citizenship, the vicious prosecution of the opposition’s funding, the witch hunt against less-than-docile public sector employees, the closing down of media outlets, the systematic torture and rape in Georgia’s penitentiary system, did not bring about a similar reaction in the US Congress. The word in the street in Georgia – and some circles in Washington – was that nomeklatura had been replaced by demokratura. Now, the feeling in Tbilisi is that a long silence has been interrupted by an inexplicably loud, unbalanced and confrontational statement against measures taken to address unheard and unlamented cases of human rights violations. Should we fail to hear these cases, we would be failing those who believed that voting can and must make a difference.
Bottom line: from Tbilisi’s point of view, the credibility of rule of law and democracy rests not with the failure to prosecute those who had for years abused their office to ensure private gains, political or economic, but with the standards of the due process upheld. There is of course another issue at hand, which is more related to lobbying.
The fact that a peaceful transfer of power did occur mostly due to the self-reservation and soberness exhibited by the opposition has not been recognized, while the previous government and outgoing President Saakashvili are credited for doing nothing more than conceding its defeat having failed to cling to power by foul play. That is wrong. But, what’s worse is that the incoming and democratically elected government in Tbilisi is portrayed as vindictive for preserving the notion that no one is above the law.
Here, the chasm between public opinion in Washington and Tbilisi is simply dangerous. If public opinion in Tbilisi concludes that this is not a chasm founded on misperceptions, but simply a cynical declaration of partisan preferences for Georgia, in spite of the people of Georgia, the real danger is that an unreservedly positive public opinion vis a vis US interests will be undermined. And one can be certain that this is not what Congressman Turner intended to accomplish.
It is evident that the collateral damage of Congressman Turner’s amendment is the accentuation of domestic political polarization. Historically, the US has been perceived as the champion of democracy rather than the patron of a single administration. There are many reasons to stand behind this legacy. If Georgia were marginalized despite its enduring sacrifices in Afghanistan or its recent democratic breakthrough, the result would not merely be a sense of isolation for Georgians. Given the high symbolic value with which the democratization project has been invested in Washington, especially Georgian democratization, there is little doubt that Russia would relish the opportunity to scorn western values and question the moral high ground of US leadership in the region. This is habitually the case in Moscow; however, the real danger now is that more people would be willing to listen.
Having met Congressman Turner prior to this incident, I am certain that we strive towards the same objectives for Georgia and the South Caucasus, although our assessment of specific events clearly differ. It is my understanding that the forming of opinion about Georgia in Washington has for more than nine years relied on specific people, who are still present and around. They have their own agenda, which has very little to do with diplomatic objectives or democratization and everything to do with clinging to former privileges and, alas, impunity. Of course rebalancing the available sources of information about Georgia in Washington is the responsibility of our parliament and government. However, because ours is not just another administration but a different kind of government, pluralism of information about Georgia is something that Washington must become accustomed to. We do not intend to establish a monopoly of information or of governance.
Looking forward to working with Georgia’s friends in Washington, including Congressman Turner, what is now essential is to establish a credible and bipartisan mechanism of international monitoring over the legal process. I am confident that such a mechanism would a) increase confidence in the rule of law domestically, precisely because we value Washington’s opinion, and b) reinforce US moral authority in providing reform minded leadership in the region. The former objective is the most significant, because it is the Georgian people who must make a sharp differentiation between due process and retribution. Again, sticking to process is not for the fainthearted!
One thing is certain: this government hears the cry of Congressman Turner and calls upon him personally and our friends in Washington generally to understand that we share a common objective. Democracy is not founded either on amnesty or on vengeance. Due process alone can solidify and cement the gains of October 2012. We must duly proceed, with faith in a process amply legitimated by vigilant and impartial monitoring, putting US moral authority to constructive use.
Committee of Foreign Relation
Parliament of Georgia