Kelly Degnan: The West has never sought to “drag Georgia into war” - it is even more troubling when those statements are echoed by members of the ruling party, they are doing the people of Georgia a tremendous disservice

The Ambassador of the United States of America to Georgia has been the object of criticism in our country for several months. The criticism comes from the persons enjoying the status of "expert", as well as the 3 MPs who have left the Georgian Dream, and moreover, the Government itself. "Dragging Georgia into the war" and "exerting pressure on the judge" are the two biggest allegations, which have a campaign character against Kelly Degnan and which have made the American diplomat to justify herself for a long time now... The Ambassador is surprised at the campaign launched against her and believes that "we have to question the motives of anyone who insists on repeating false information that seems intended to misrepresent U.S. efforts."

The US Ambassador spoke exclusively to InterPressNews about the above criticism and the question that has not lost its relevance for several months: "Is the West trying to drag Georgia into the war?", as well as other topical issues:

First of all, I would like to thank you for your interest and time. At this very important and future-determining moment for Georgia, you have been performing crucial work, and you will continue to do so in the future. You have been actively participating in the process of easing and depolarizing the tense political situation in Georgia for several years, though at a historic moment for the country, when Georgia was supposed to receive the status of a candidate, the main barrier turned out to be the polarized environment. Before we delve into the situation specifically, I would like to ask you in general what we are dealing with and why the country was not able to overcome this controversy? Do you get the impression that the ruling party on the one hand and the opposition on the other are interested not in finding common ground, but looking for reasons for further polarization?

As part of our celebration of 30 years of diplomatic relations, I’m traveling to all of Georgia’s regions to meet directly with the public. What I hear from the Georgians I meet is that they are very tired and frustrated by the polarization you describe. The vast majority of the citizens of Georgia have chosen a European future, a more democratic, more prosperous, more secure future. That future is being held up by political leaders spending more time attacking each other than working on the issues of importance to the people of Georgia, like high unemployment, high prices, and education. Georgia’s political leaders need to put Georgia’s path to the European Union and the best interests of the country ahead of their partisan differences.

As we have been doing for the last 30 years, the United States stands ready as Georgia’s strategic partner to help strengthen the economy and move this country closer to its rightful place in the Euro-Atlantic family of nations.

Georgia's motto says: "Unity is power" - EU candidacy will be achieved not by a single party but by a united political class - this is a statement made by Viola von Cramon, Member of European Parliament, who visited Georgia last week. Despite this, the opposition started a parallel process regarding the implementation of the recommendations of the European Commission in July. Do you think the parties made the right choice when they chose different paths to get candidate status? As a diplomat, do you think it is possible to achieve the strategic goal of Georgia in this way?

Unity is the best way forward. As we’ve said repeatedly, it is essential that Georgia’s leaders set aside their differences and come together in the name of a Euro-Atlantic future for the people of Georgia. I am hopeful that, through transparent, inclusive processes that are informed by civil society recommendations, the ruling party and opposition parties will develop concrete, workable proposals that will address the EU’s recommendations. At the end of the day, it will be up to Georgia’s political leaders to negotiate a response that best achieves that goal. Real success that demonstrates commitment to the EU candidate status process will involve discussions and compromises by all the stakeholders at the table.

Democracy is all about compromise and reaching consensus so that everyone can support the final outcome. Compromise is not a sign of weakness; on the contrary, the democracies that have been able to work together have turned out to be the strongest.

Despite the calls to work together on the recommendations of the European Union, the representative of the opposition who rejects the unified work process explains it as follows: “The commissions have preconditions that de-oligarchization does not apply to Bidzina Ivanishvili, depolarization means silencing the opposition and the 12 points do not apply to constitutional changes, there is no “clan” in court, and the law we will write will not touch the “clan.” I am asking you, how should we enter the process, where preconditions are imposed, when we know that the request of the European Union will not be fulfilled, especially relating to those four fundamental issues?” – this is the position of one of the leaders of the Strategy Builder, Giorgi Vashadze. Overall, this is the argument of the opposition. As a person well versed in the current processes, do you have counter-arguments to this statement which would convince the opposition that it is worth joining efforts with the Government and expressing confidence in it?

Working together to build consensus is the best path forward for any democracy. Georgia now has something it has not had in its young democratic history: a clear roadmap to European Union candidacy. Georgians should feel very proud of all they have accomplished since regaining independence from the Soviet Union. They have a chance to make real progress toward Europe by sitting down at the same table and agreeing on the reforms they need to implement to address the European Commission’s recommendations.

One of the issues where the opposition and the Government do not see a point of agreement is whether Bidzina Ivanishvili should be affected by the law related to de-oligarchization. I want to ask you too, is Bidzina Ivanishvili an oligarch?

The recommendations do not name specific individuals. The best way to prevent undue outside influence over political decision-making is through establishing transparent mechanisms to combat corruption and through judicial reform to ensure an independent judiciary that administers the law without political interference.

I will ask you here, in your comment given to the media a few days ago, in response to the accusations, you mentioned that you had not met Ivanishvili for a long time and when you did meet him, you did not have any attempt to blackmail him. Can I ask you what was the status of Bidzina Ivanishvili when he met you? Did he meet you as a former PM, as a founder of the GD, or as an oligarch?

We normally do not talk about our private meetings in the press, but as Mr. Ivanishvili has confirmed, I last met with him on March 21, which was some time ago. When Mr. Ivanishvili and I met, it was in the capacity of discussing the U.S.-Georgia partnership and the United States’ efforts to support Georgia’s economic, security, and democratic development. Let me be absolutely clear, so no one will have to ask again: there was never talk about involving Georgia in Russia’s war against Ukraine, or about “blackmail” or actions to stall the transfer of Mr. Ivanishvili’s money. I would refer you to him or the banks involved regarding questions on these topics.

When the United States imposes financial sanctions, we announce them publicly. There is a searchable list on the Treasury Department’s website where banks, media, and the general public can check who is and isn’t subject to financial sanctions. Any discussion of Swiss bank accounts is frankly a distraction from the important work at hand. As Mr. Ivanishvili noted in his July 27 statement, this is a private matter between him and his financial institution.

There is a lot of discussion about imposing personal sanctions on Bidzina Ivanishvili in the West. This assumption is confirmed by the statements made by the representatives of the Ukrainian Government that Bidzina Ivanishvili will be punished for his supportive position towards Russia in the Russia-Ukraine war. I want to ask you how much the subject of personal sanctions is actively discussed in the United States?

There has been a lot of vague insinuations about sanctions and pressure from the United States. This is not how financial sanctions work. Those who are sanctioned by the United States know it because the information is posted publicly. The Department of the Treasury issues press releases, and maintains a public, searchable list in order to inform banks and other institutions that sanctions have been imposed.

Frankly speaking, it’s a little puzzling how much time and energy is being spent by some discussing sanctions, or someone else’s money, rather than working on the clear roadmap to EU membership.

I can’t help but ask you about the small group of MPs who have left the ruling party recently and are distinguished by rather heavy accusations against you personally and the United States of America. Do you think that the ruling party is behind the non-constructive statements of this group? I remember that in response to Kavelashvili’s letter, you mentioned that the narrative of these MPs suspiciously coincides with the narrative of the Georgian Dream. I would like to ask you about the possible motive behind the anti-American and anti-Western statements.

We, too, question the motives of this distraction from Georgia’s top priority of achieving EU candidate status and the insistence on repeating what has already been identified many times as disinformation. We have repeatedly answered the questions about our long-standing work in Georgia. Since it seems some have still not heard, let me repeat again that we do not use our programs to sanction or punish people and we did not sanction Judge Chkhikvadze. We do not interfere in court decisions in Georgia, and we do not meet in secret. And we did not do so in this case. On the contrary, we regularly work with judges, prosecutors, and attorneys in Georgia to build their legal skills to administer the law in a transparent, impartial manner that is consistent with international practices. The Embassy is focused on continuing the robust cooperation that has defined the U.S.-Georgia strategic partnership over the last three decades. This has been a successful and productive partnership that we are proud of and that has benefited thousands of Georgians.

Another statement, which has not lost its relevance for several weeks and was voiced in Kavelashvili-Khundadze-Subari's statement published on July 25, is the issue of "draging Georgia into the war". “You not only do not distance yourself from the war-oriented rhetoric, but you support and incite it yourself”, - this is the statement made by Kavelashvili –Khundadze –Subari group. How do you explain the fact that, despite the repeated explanations from both the United States of America and European partners - that nobody's goal is to involve Georgia in the war, this issue keeps coming back to the political agenda?

Again, we have to question the motives of anyone who insists on repeating false information that seems intended to misrepresent U.S. efforts. The United States focus during the span of the Kremlin’s brutal, unprovoked war against Ukraine has been on restoring peace. We are working to end the war in Ukraine as quickly as possible and doing everything we can to prevent this tragic conflict from expanding to include Georgia or any other country. In the months leading up to the re-invasion in February, U.S. diplomatic efforts were on high alert, making continuous warnings against the unprovoked use of force, continuously communicating both to Putin and the Russian people that a diplomatic solution is the best one. Russia ignored those warnings and continues to be more isolated in the world.

The West has never sought to “drag Georgia into war.” We have absolutely no interest in involving Georgia into war. As we have told Georgia’s leaders from the beginning, we understand Georgia’s sensitive position, given Russia’s occupation of Georgian territory and Georgia’s own experiences with Russian aggression. Those who repeat the narrative are doing Russia’s work by trying to divide Georgia at a critical point in its democratic development. Those suggesting Georgia would have received candidate status if Georgia were at war, or who tout the “second front” narrative, are spreading disinformation that is meant to create fear and confusion. It is even more troubling when those statements are echoed by members of the ruling party. They are doing the people of Georgia a tremendous disservice and distracting from the important work that needs to be done to bring people together and lead Georgia forward.

The West has partnered with Georgia to support the peaceful end of Russia’s occupation of Georgia and to support the many people displaced by Russia’s aggression. Our position is clear – it’s been stated by President Biden, Secretary Blinken, the State Department’s spokesperson, our numerous visitors, and myself. There should be no doubt that as Georgia’s partner we want peace – here, in Ukraine, and throughout Europe. We continue to work for a Europe whole, free, and at peace that includes Georgia.

It is absolutely strange to feel that we only give, only give and never receive anything in return, - MEP Marketa Gregorova shared this impression in an interview given to InterPressNews. When you hear criticism of the EU Ambassador before his departure, when despite the successful projects implemented in Georgia you often list, you hear criticism and accusations against you personally and the USA, do you have a similar skeptical impression that you are bound by a one-sided partnership with the Georgian Government? Recently, you have repeatedly mentioned that "partners don't talk like that" ...

Our partnership is fundamentally with the citizens of Georgia, and it has always been a two-way partnership with the people. At every step of our 30-year relationship, the United States and Georgia have engaged based on mutual respect, shared values, and the firm belief in Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic future. And let me say again, this is the choice of the vast majority of citizens of Georgia. They are the driving force behind democratization, economic development, and greater security and defense cooperation with the United States.

Since we are talking about partnership, I cannot ignore the issue of Ukraine. "Today, when Russia is waging a war on the peaceful land of Ukraine, we had expectations that Georgia would provide more effective assistance to Ukraine, unfortunately, this is not happening," said Ukraine's Charge d'Affaires in Georgia Andrii Kasianov. Do you share this partial disappointment?

Georgia and Ukraine should be natural allies against Putin’s aggression. These people know Russia well—their histories are colored by Russia’s broken promises, invasions, war, and occupation. The people of Georgia and Ukraine are strongly united, as we saw with the generous outpouring of humanitarian support from Georgians to Ukrainians. Whatever differences politicians have should be settled outside of the media with the spirit of compassion and understanding of the crisis Ukraine is confronting. Only Russia benefits when Ukraine and Georgia are divided.

High-ranking Ukrainian officials have repeatedly accused Georgia of helping Russia circumvent the sanctions imposed against it? I would like to ask you whether you had similar questions towards the Georgian Government and did you find the answers received from them convincing?

We continue to monitor possible sanctions evasions. Our Georgian partners work with us to ensure that Georgia is not being used for sanctions evasion. We see that the sanctions are having an effect. For them to have maximum effect and pressure the Kremlin to stop attacking Ukraine, it is important that we work together to close all loopholes.

Salome Abulashvili

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