On Wednesday, November 20th the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) partnered with the Free University of Tbilisi and Agricultural University of Georgia to host the half-day conference, “Georgia’s Political Transition: Preserving a Euroatlantic Future in the Region”.
The event brought together representatives of the American and Georgian governments, expert observers, and other international stakeholders to discuss Georgia’s political transition and the United States’ role in guiding and assuring its successful Euroatlantic integration. Mr. J. Robinson West, co-chair of the Board of Trustees of GMF, provided opening remarks and introduced the keynote speaker, Senator John McCain.
Senator McCain began by acknowledging the parliamentary and presidential elections over the past year as monumental and inspirational for the world. During the year of cohabitation, former President Mikheil Saakashvili accepted responsibility for mistakes made by his administration. Georgians demonstrated their desire for change through the democratic process and now their expectations for the new government are higher than ever, Senator McCain said. The senator reaffirmed that the United States will continue to hold Georgia to the highest democratic standards, as the Georgian people expect and deserve. Highlighting the association agreement with the European Union at the upcoming Eastern Partnership conference in Vilnius, Lithuania will continue Georgia’s path towards Euroatlantic integration.
Senator McCain explained that Georgia’s negotiations with the West are seen by the Russian Federation through a zero-sum game analysis of foreign policy. Its occupation of sovereign Georgian territory, with brazen troop deployments and erected borders, is a disgrace and makes a mockery of the international order, Senator McCain said.
Addressing why those in the United States should care about Georgia’s democratic transition, McCain offered the dream of a Europe “whole, free, and at peace”. This goal, Senator McCain argued, was the vision of Europe following World War II, but delayed by the Cold War and tested and reaffirmed in the 1990s despite the conflicts in the Balkans. Georgians, too, believe in this goal. President Saakashvili brought Georgia to the doorstep, and the new government is responsible for seizing the window of opportunity before it closes. A question from the audience that raised the concern of the Georgian people that the United States losing interest in their nation and the Caucasus, and Senator McCain admitted that America’s attention has been distracted by the crises in the Middle East. He firmly expressed his outrage of the Russian occupation and reaffirmed that that, though it is distracted, the United States has not lost interest in the Caucasus and will continue to oppose Putin’s efforts to restore the Near Abroad.
Senator McCain’s comments framed the rest of the day’s discussion.
Kakha Bendukidze, Chairman of the Board of the Free University of Tbilisi and Agricultural University of Georgia, provided a welcome address outlining the domestic economic reactions to Georgia’s political transition. The first panel, “Domestic Developments in Georgia and Their Impact on Foreign Policy” built off of his argument, with Ghia Nodia of Ilia State University, Andrei Illarionov of the CATO Institute, and Tom De Waal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, offering their opinions and moderated by Andrew Weiss, also of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Nodia posed the question of whether the 2012 parliamentary and 2013 presidential elections were a turning point for Georgian politics or a transition to another consolidation of one dominant political group. Mr. Illarionov examined the collapse of Georgia’s real GDP growth and the potential causes in terms of foreign direct investment, the government’s revenue and expenditure growth, and the trends in prison population and especially grave crimes since Georgia Dream began governing. Mr. De Waal provided a narrative of the transition since 2012, expecting increased political engagement as the government’s concentration shifts from political polarization to economic recovery. Questions from the audience focused on the attitudes of the leadership towards cooperation with the opposition.
Kurt Volker of the McCain Institute moderated the second panel, “Domestic Developments in Georgia and Their Impact on Foreign Policy”, as a conversation among Eric Rubin from the U.S. Department of State, Frederick Starr of CACI/SAIS, and Ambassador Temuri Yakobashvili, Senior Transatlantic Fellow at GMF. Mr. Rubin reaffirmed that McCain’s idea of Europe’s goal as whole, free, and at peace is the United States’ vision for the continent in the future and is the top priority for the West. He added that the successes at the Vilnius summit will carry over into the NATO membership process. Mr. Starr highlighted the absence of a coherent policy in the United States to engage the wider Eurasia in an initiative based on reviving the Silk Road and the lack of a sense of urgency to combat Russian intimidation which threatens the region’s sovereignty. Ambassador Yakobashvili argued that it is Georgia’s lack of a national narrative that makes it complex to engage and even more difficult for the United States to form a lasting, proactive policy for the region. Questions focused on the West’s reactions to human rights violations by the new government, Georgia’s future once the association agreement process is completed, the potential to repair relations in the Caucasus, and Georgia’s involvement in stabilizing the region following the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The second panel provided closing remarks for the event as Mr. Starr reiterated that security and democracy are linked, and without one another cannot succeed. Ambassador Yakobashvili defined Georgia as a fault-line state, meaning that mistakes made by Georgia will reverberate at a minimum throughout the Caucasus and possibly into Eurasia. The United States needs to proliferate its policy towards Eurasia, and the Vilnius summit, November 28-29, should stimulate policymakers to this effect. Mr. Volker concluded that the United States is the global protector of human rights, liberty, and society from abuse; this standard is threatened if the principles are devalued by the new government and should instead be advanced to the fullest.