Ambassador Degnan: Thank you for letting me join you here at the radio station. I have had such a warm welcome here in Zugdidi. I am really touched by the opportunity to meet so many different people. Yesterday was a wonderful day. I came up for the opening of the expansion of the American Corner in Zugdidi and we had all the students out, all the kids who come to the American Corner showing their art, their music, their dance. It was just a wonderful welcome to Zugdidi.
Q-n about future US Embassy projects for the regions of Georgia, and Samegrelo, given the Ambassador’s previous visit to Zugdidi during which she showed support for internal tourism, among other things
Ambassador Degnan: I think the American Corner is a good example of that. This is a space, similar to what you do so well here at Radio Atinanti where young people can come together, they can share ideas, they can develop startups, they can become entrepreneurs, they can learn English. It is just sort of a safe space; and what I have seen in a place like Zugdidi where you are working so hard to bridge the divide between the citizens who are living in Abkhazia and trying to keep those connections alive. This becomes very ,very important, and the U.S. Embassy is very proud to be able to contribute to that, whether through support to some of the NGOs who are working so hard to help the IDPs or to help the communities in Abkhazia, or to help the young people.
Q-n about leverage in the hands of the Georgian government and its partners to help people across the ABL, which is so close to Zugdidi, to protect their rights and to influence the processes there.
Ambassador Degnan: The most important thing, I think, is the people-to-people connections and that is why it is so important to keep those strong. I think there are also opportunities through trade, and we saw that during the hazelnut period when it was possible for the growers in Abkhazia to bring their products over here. I think Covid has also presented some opportunities to again restore that connection, to show people living in Abkhazia that Georgia has services and is ready to help their citizens that are living in Abkhazia as well. When someone sees that for themselves , when someone goes to the hospital and is taken of with the same level of care as anyone else in this country. That is a memory, that is an experience that changes minds. We know that there is a great deal of disinformation in Abkhazia, and that people do not have access to accurate information. Again, I think where Radio Atinati and others can play such an important role bringing the truth to people who are so isolated. We try to do that by working through the UN agencies who have better access than the United States Embassy or than other international organizations, our USAID programs, such as the Horizons Project, which works toward bringing youth together. This is just one example of how we try to keep those people-to-people connections strong.
[the anchor mentions joint Georgian-Abkhaz radio program and thanks the U.S. Embassy for support to Radio Atinati in general and in 2008 when the transmitter was bombed and thanks to the US Embassy assistance the radio resumed broadcasting, including to Abkhazia]
Ambassador Degnan: I think that is a sign how important the media is, how important communication is in a crisis, but any time. Free media is absolutely essential for a healthy democracy, making sure that you are able to reach your listeners with accurate information with good programming; I think particularly in this region where you have language difference and generation that is growing up in Abkhazia, not allowed to learn their own language – it becomes even more important to have a resource like this that they can count on. And, so, again, that is something that, I think, we are very proud of having been able to help.
Q-n Ambassador Degnan’s thought about the political crisis against the backdrop of the pandemic, Ambassador Degnan’s contribution to easing the crisis though March 8 agreement included, the rounds of talks, the agreement reached, and still, some of the opposition entered parliament, some did not; the importance of the crisis to be resolved
Ambassador Degnan: It was very important to see that the parties could negotiate through to an agreement. I think that was true for the March 8 agreement, that took a lot of discussion and debate, but they reached an agreement. They had an important step forward in the constitutional changes last summer, the electoral reform. I think we saw in the October elections that there are still areas that need to be addressed, there were still areas where there were violations, And, this process which took some time, but I think, was valuable in that it resulted in meaningful electoral and judicial reforms that will make the next elections that much better. For me, one of the best things to watch here was how the party leaders learned to negotiate with each other. Some of them did not even know each other before. But, now they have sat down at the table and worked through some very difficult issues. They still have big differences, but they know how to talk to each other. What is going to be extremely important, now that they are in parliament, is that they continue to consult with each other, to debate the issues. It is going to be a different parliament from what the ruling party is used to, it will not be possible for the Georgian Dream to just go with its own agenda, it is going to have to incorporate these other parties and listen to the other party leaders just as they need to listen to civil society as well. So, this is a real opportunity for Georgia’s democracy to step forward; and we in the United States, as well as in Europe , are watching very carefully and very closely to see whether Georgia’s political leaders take advantage of this and make the most of this opportunity.
Q-n about media freedom and the role of media and civil society in Georgia’s political processes, after thanking Ambassador Degnan for her personal effort and contribution in this political process, as well as for supporting media organizations and individual journalists
Ambassador Degnan: I am a journalist myself so it is something that I pay close attention to and one of the first things that I wanted to do when I arrived in Georgia was to hear from journalists and editors what are the challenges here. As I was preparing to come to Georgia, I heard you had a very robust media here, but what I heard when I got here is that there is a lot of pressure on the journalists and on the media outlets. Because of the financing and because of the polarized political situation here, I have seen that, and I know that there are a lot of very qualified and committed professional journalists who are not always able to do the job the way they would want to do. To me the most important thing as a journalist is your professional ethics, because journalism is a self-self-regulated profession. It is really the responsibility of the journalist to maintain the ethics of accuracy and integrity. I have seen this here among many journalists, not all of the journalists, but many of them. I think if there is more government support in terms of understanding the vital role that media plays in a democracy and that media criticism is not an attack on government–it is designed to keep the government accountable to the people and designed to keep the people well-informed. So, it plays an absolutely essential role, but it is a very difficult job.