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U.S. Ambassador Speaks of Georgia's Challenges

21.06.2012

• ‘There has been more energy towards modernization than democratization’;
• ‘Trend is reflection of priorities articulated by the Georgian population’;
• ‘U.S. assistance to Georgia will depend on strengthening its democracy’;
• ‘An awful lot of people talking past each other’;
• ‘Comparative absence of tolerance and respect for divergent viewpoints’;
• ‘Dichotomy between impressive reforms and areas where there has been less progress’;
• Saakashvili’s policies to Russia ‘not made up out of whole cloth’;
• ‘There is a landscape in place which enables the kind of competitive election that Georgians would like to see’;
• ‘Concern over access to information is a big issue’;
• ‘Too many people have to rely on single sources of information’

Georgia’s modernization and economic development efforts should go hand in hand with democracy development as all of these three factors will be important for Georgia’s long-term success, U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, John Bass, said on June 13.

In a wide-ranging speech about Georgia’s present and future perspectives, delivered at Washington-based think tank, Atlantic Council, Ambassador Bass, whose three-year tenure in Georgia is nearing to the end, outlined some of the major challenges he thinks Georgia is facing.
 
Modernization and Democratization

He said although there had been a progress in development of Georgia’s democratic institutions, on a comparative basis efforts in recent years were made more on modernization rather than on democratization – the trend, which he said, was a reflection of the Georgian public’s priorities.
 
“I think it’s fair to say that there has been more energy in recent past on modernizing infrastructure, modernizing institutions, modernizing and making more effective delivery of services and business of governance as opposed to an equivalent amount of energy going into strengthening some of the bones of democratic institutions and cultures,” Ambassador Bass said, adding that it was in a large degree reflection of priorities articulated by the Georgian population.

“When you look at polling data, Georgians consistently identify as their principle concerns unemployment, economic development, reintegration of the territories and rehabilitation of infrastructure well ahead of strengthening democratic institutions,” Bass said.

“Extent to which Georgia continues to receive and merit a disproportional amount of interest, attention and investment from the United States as it has up to this point will continue to depend to a substantial degree on the extent to which it continues to be at a head of the class in its region and among the [Soviet Union] successor states in strengthening its democracy.”

“I think that the challenge for the next period in Georgia’s development is whether this country can continue to modernize, develop its economy and strengthen its democratic culture simultaneously, because all three [of these issues] are important to its long-term success,” Bass said.

On the path of accomplishing these goals, the U.S. ambassador said, Georgia was facing several major challenges.
 
"A Lot of People Talking Past Each Other"

He described the first one as “challenge of promoting fact-based reality versus somewhat mystical reliance on opinion.”

Bass said that recently one of the Georgian business leaders told him that lot of problems in the Georgian society was coming from lack of analytical, critical thinking skills in the society.

“I generally share that characterization. There is still too much reliance on a fervently held belief or opinion that is not grounded in objective data,” Bass said, adding that “there is an awful lot of people talking past each other.”

He said that extent to which it was happening in Georgia represented a long-term detriment to further democratic development.

"Comparative Absence of Tolerance"

Corollary to that, he continued, was “comparative absence of tolerance” and respect for divergent viewpoints whether political or based on ethnicity and religion.

“There are too many people still in society that are looking to define themselves by their differences and to promote their vision in a way which does not include enough room for others,” Bass said.

He said that since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the process of defining what does it mean to be a Georgian in the modern world, some people “have chosen to answer that question by saying that to be Georgian means to be ethnically Georgia and adherent to Orthodox faith.”

“That does not leave very much room to many other Georgian citizens who are either from other ethnic group or embracing other faith,” Bass said, adding that the Georgia’s current government “deserves a great deal of credit” for promoting tolerance and a vision that enables all Georgians, regardless of their ethnicity and faith, to participate in the society equally.

He also said, without going into details, that there were “clearly some hints” and “a danger that an ethnic chauvinism, religious chauvinism” might potentially be employed in the election campaign ahead of the October parliamentary polls.

Predictable Business Climate

Georgia’s substantial economic growth of recent years, the U.S. Ambassador said, was not translated into corresponding increases in employment and benefits of that growth had not reached many people in rural areas.

He said that expanding of Georgia’s economic growth and development to broader segments of the Georgian society was among the major challenges for the country.

“Corollary to that challenge is that of creating of more predictable business and investment climate for all businesses, but particularly for those investors seeking to enter the market from outside Georgia,” he said.

He said there was “dichotomy” between impressive reforms of recent years and areas where there had been less progress.

Predictability and dispute resolution mechanisms, as well as strengthening of intellectual property rights were those two areas in which, he said, potential or actual investors thought more progress was needed.

"Saakashvili’s Russia Approach ‘Not Made Up Out of Whole Cloth’"

The U.S. Ambassador said that breakaway regions and Tbilisi’s relations with Moscow represented separate set of challenges in which Georgia was mainly unable to influence or dictate the outcomes.

Again citing public opinion surveys, Bass said that majority of the Georgian population wanted to see good relations with Russia, but not at the expense of losing territories.

“That is an ongoing challenge that I would hope some of the leadership in Moscow over time will become a bit more sensitive to and attune to, in terms of understanding, their neighbor. I think there is a better understanding these days in Georgia of what is going on in Russia, than there is an understanding of what is really happening in Georgia by Russians,” Bass said and added that hopefully Georgia’s decision to lift visa rules for Russian citizens would break down those barriers.

“I do not see a lot of room for the relationship to improve fundamentally until we get through next electoral cycle in Georgia and hopefully the Russian government realizes that the President [Saakashvili] in his approach to relations with Russia has been reflecting public opinion to large degree and not simply creating it out of whole cloth,” he said.

He said that absence of common memory and experience between new generations living in Georgia and in its breakaway regions was a serious challenge on Tbilisi’s path of reintegration. He said that the issue of fostering increased engagement and interaction across the administrative boundary lines was “not something we talk a great deal about publicly, but that does not mean that we are not talking and working on it privately behind the scenes.”

"Country of Vision"
 
He then named four reasons why he thought Georgia was able to meet all these challenges. The first one, he said, was “mental revolution” ongoing in Georgia with new generation having “fundamentally different concept of their country, its place in the world” than the prior generation.

“I think that is a really important dynamic underneath the surface that is not captured in much of what you see written about Georgian these days,” Bass said.

Second reason, he said, was the society’s “hunger for normalcy” with polling data showing very little appetite for a return to street protest rallies as a principle way to negotiate political change.
 
“To me that speaks not of disillusion, it speaks of a degree of political maturity in population,” he said.

He said third reason was “underutilized capacity” of Georgia with its low productivity, lot of empty, uncultivated agricultural land and several market segments that were open for opportunity “if business climate stabilizes in a way that attracts investments.”

“Georgia still has lots of opportunities that can be capitalized on,” he said. “If the fundamentals remain in a right direction, there is a potential for a lot of momentum.”

The fourth reason, he said, “is that Georgia is a country of vision.” “There is a willingness to think differently about the country and about the society, notwithstanding some of the impulses to think in a very classic, traditional terms about ethnicity and religion,” he said.

Electoral Environment

Touching upon electoral environment ahead of the October parliamentary elections, the U.S. Ambassador said that “elements are in place” for these elections to be a big step forwards.

“Unfortunately too much energy up to this point has been focused on the process itself and the playing field; there are certainly some areas where we would like to see some additional improvements,” he said.

“One of the challenges for this period is ensuring [that] environment is competitive enough so that people focus more on contesting the elections themselves rather than on contesting the legitimacy of the process. At this point in time, frankly, I don’t see a landscape that requires the majority of effort to be put on the latter,” Bass said, adding that although some additional improvements were required, “broadly speaking there is a landscape in place which enables the kind of competitive election that Georgians would like to see.”

He said introduction of campaign finance limitations after Bidzina Ivanishvili, who has personal wealth of over half the country’s GDP, went into politics was a reasonable move.

“Our concern continues to be whether these provisions are used in a way that restricts, or curbs, or suppresses political speech and legitimate political activity and the manner in which they are implemented serves to have a polling data,on political organization,” he said, adding the U.S. was encouraging the state audit agency, which is in charge of monitoring political finances, to be more transparent and to have clear set of guidelines.

He said he was not aware of details of recent multi-million fine imposed on Ivanishvili and was not able to comment.

Concerns over Access to Information

Bass said that “big issue” in respect of media situation was how to broaden access to information for those who live outside large cities and “don’t have access to cable providers who carry pro-opposition channels and therefore are relying on major terrestrial broadcasters, who tend to have a pro-government orientation.”

“I think it is legitimate to express a concern that these voters don’t have an access to a wide range of information,” the U.S. Ambassador said.

He said that he hoped there would be some progress on this issue sooner rather than later.

“Too many people have to rely on single sources of information or try to piece together what is happening from a range of sources of information each of which has a very focused, concentrated point of view, which does not consider alternative facts and alternative opinions,” he said.

EU, NATO Integration

The U.S. ambassador said that Georgia’s progress in fulfilling demanding objectives “brought Georgia closer to both deepening its relationship with the European Union and deepening its relationship with NATO in the run up to eventual membership.”

He said that three years ago many people thought it would have been impossible for Georgia to start talks on deep and comprehensive free trade agreement, as well as on visa liberalization with the EU in such a short period of time.

“With respect to NATO we’ve seen an awful lot of progress on defense reform and modernization, creating institutional framework for the defense ministry and for the armed forces,” Bass said.

Photo: U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, John Bass, April, 2012. Photo: Guram Muradov/Civil.ge

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