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Ambassador Degnan's Interview with RFE/RL
August 22, 2023

Ambassador Degnan's Interview with RFE/RL

Photo: Georgian Service (RFE/RL)

Published in Georgian on August 21, 2023

Source  RFE/RL

Courtesy English Transcript

RFE/RL:  Ambassador Degnan, thank you for this opportunity, the last opportunity, I guess, for me to record you as an Ambassador of the U.S. in Georgia.  We are recording this interview amid very tragic days for Georgia, resulting from the natural disaster in Shovi.  Twenty-six people confirmed dead, more are being searched, still many families devastated by their losses, survivors deeply traumatized seeking further support.  I don’t want to go into details of certain statements and commentaries of the officials.  Some of them even judge the survivors, questioning their behavior while trying to survive.  We can say that there are many questions to be answered by the authorities, who insist that it was impossible to do anything to prevent or at least minimize the life loss we are witnessing now.  I guess what we can do is – I mean, journalists asking questions, of course – but we in this interview, express our condolences to the families who lost their relatives and close people, and just thank rescue workers. I know the U.S. Embassy also published a statement on that.

Ambassador Degnan:  Yes.  I thank you for starting the interview with this, because this is a terrible tragedy.  And on behalf of everyone at the embassy, on behalf of the American people, I’d like to express our deep, deep condolences to the families of the victims and to all of those who lost loved ones in this tragedy.  This is a reminder of the power of nature.  It is also an opportunity to make sure that we do what we can to take steps to prevent these sorts of natural disasters where we can, when we can.  We are also deeply grateful to the first responders for their tireless efforts to do what they could in those early moments.  We were very pleased to see that the National Guard was out there as well, trying to help.  We have worked a lot with Georgia’s National Guard on this very kind of emergency rescue – whether it’s in the rivers of Georgia, whether it’s in the mountains, all kinds of natural disasters – to do what we can to ensure that Georgia’s National Guard has the training that it needs for these kinds of unexpected emergencies.  And again, I think our focus needs to be on helping those people who are, as you said, really suffering and will always have this tragedy that has disrupted their lives. 

RFE/RL:  It’s already more than three and a half years you served here as an ambassador.  And what kind of days are now for you in Georgia?  As I noticed, actually, I saw one release about your meeting with the Minister of Defense, for instance.  You’re doing this last meetings here.  What are you busy with now? 

Ambassador Degnan:  Well, it’s a very busy time because in addition to the customary farewell calls with the officials of the government here with whom I have had the pleasure of working for the past three and a half years on many different initiatives that the United States and Georgia are doing together, it is also very sad, because I’m having to say farewell to so many wonderful Georgians who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting over the past three and a half years, who’ve offered me friendship, hospitality, who’ve helped me better understand the culture here, have really been essential to making my experience here in Georgia unforgettable.  It has just been the most wonderful experience, and truly a great honor, probably the greatest honor of my life, to serve as the United States Ambassador here in this beautiful country of Georgia that is such an important friend and partner to the United States.  I have had the pleasure of traveling to all the regions except Abkhazia and Tskhinvali in the time that I’ve been here.  I feel like I have friends in every region of Georgia because of the warm welcome I’ve received everywhere I’ve gone.  I’ve seen the concrete proof of this friendship that the United States and Georgia have had for 30 years.  There are schools that we’ve helped renovate, there are clinics that we’ve helped equip, there are women entrepreneurs in mountainous areas, in Ajara and Racha, or in Svaneti, who are able to sell their products to a broader market thanks to help from USAID.  There are farmers cooperatives that have raised the quality of their hazelnuts or now selling their raspberries and blueberries to the Gulf states for a much higher price and profit.  All over the country I have seen the evidence, the proof of this wonderful partnership between the United States and Georgia.  It has made a real meaningful difference in the lives of thousands of Georgian citizens over the past 30 years.  I’m very, very proud to have been able to support that and expand that into new areas. 

RFE/RL:  Do you have feeling of regrets that you didn’t make something you could because of certain reasons as an Ambassador? 

Ambassador Degnan:  Well, I would’ve liked to have made more progress helping Georgians overcome this deep polarization.  It existed when I came.  There was already quite a deep politicization of almost every issue.  There was a crisis at hand as a result of the events of June 19, 2020 with the Russian Duma speaker taking the speaker’s chair in parliament here.  That was a crisis already in the making.  I think that Georgian leaders came through that with some important electoral reforms, and I think that was a very encouraging sign that they can work together.  Then of course, we had very flawed parliamentary elections in October of 2020.  That led to another political crisis.  I, again, was very proud to see Georgia’s political leaders, Georgia’s society negotiating a solution, negotiating a way forward to resolve that crisis, to bring members of parliament into parliament where they should be having these debates, where they should be resolving their differences and enacting legislation that’s in the best interest of the whole country of Georgia.  Unfortunately, we saw that neither of the major parties held to that agreement and that was very disappointing.  I think that allowed the polarization to gain ground again and created more distrust that has been difficult to overcome.  There is another opportunity for the political leaders to show the courage, to have the strength to put aside their differences and really work on accomplishing these 12 recommendations.  The European Union has given Georgia a clear roadmap to candidate status.  They made it very simple, just follow these steps.  So, I hope in these last few months and weeks that the political leaders can put aside their differences and work hard on these 12 recommendations, because that’s in Georgia’s best interests.

RFE/RL:  Is that about courage, lack of courage, that it doesn’t happen?  And, what do you think is the main reason that these priorities are not fulfilled?  And, actually, what is the main reason or who is the main reason?  Actually, recently, for quite a time, I haven’t even heard any real discussion about fulfillment of priorities.  The last time I think it was, when the EU introduced its oral evaluation of fulfillment of those priorities, which differs a lot from the perception of the Georgian government.  It’s totally opposite.  The Georgian government thinks that it implemented most of it.  The EU evaluates it the opposite way.  So, is it about courage or there are certain reasons for that being internal or coming from the outside? 

Ambassador Degnan:  The courage comes from putting aside differences and being willing to work together.  And, even though you have differences, understanding that the people of Georgia have made a clear choice for a European future.  Every political leader in Georgia should be working to accomplish that goal that the 85 percent of the people of Georgia have said they want.  It’s your job as a politician, as a member of parliament, to work on behalf of the citizens that you represent. 

The July oral report by the European Commission was only a few weeks ago.  And, as you pointed out, they said three of the 12 recommendations have been fulfilled.  Georgia made good progress on those, has made good progress on another seven, and on two of them, there’s more work to be done.  There’s no time to be lost.  This is the time to get to work and really show the member states of the European Union that Georgia is truly committed to this path forward. 

I think every Georgian knows candidate status, European Union membership, is not given to a country.  It’s earned.  And, it’s earned because being a member of the European Union means greater prosperity.  It means greater stability. It means greater security.  You can look at any of the recent members that have joined the European Union.  They have benefited both economically and in terms of stability.  This is why countries want to join the European Union.  This is why Georgia wants to join the European Union. 

RFE/RL:  But it seems that less and less space is left, if any, for compromises.  I mean, on the political arena, what do you think might help it to increase?  Because you remembered that you arrived when there was also a political crisis in Georgia, and you started in the year of the parliamentary elections of 2020.  And it was very busy with, at least meeting, talking, with the participation of the partners and you personally.  But it seems that even the results of those negotiations and talks, even though it is mentioned by the European Commission, I mean, agreement of April 19, it’s kind of, it has disappeared and nobody even tries to make it alive again.  So, what might help Georgians to stay on track?  To go back to the track, it’s up to you how you see It. 

Ambassador Degnan:  Compromise is difficult.  That’s where the courage comes in.  It takes a lot of courage to make compromises that are, again, if your goal is serving the best interests of Georgia, that requires compromise by everybody, by everybody.  I think it doesn’t matter whether you call it the April 19th agreement or the association agreement with the EU or the 12 recommendations.  These are the same.  These are the same reforms that Georgia has been working on for really, in truth years, decades.  Georgia has made some impressive progress in many of those areas, whether it’s electoral reform, judicial reform.  Many of these areas have seen good progress.  But this is a process.  It must continue.  If it stalls because people are unwilling to work together, unwilling to make compromises, then I think that is where we see the problem.  The European Union member states are also looking at how Georgia addresses these reforms.  Can the country come together and work on this in a united way?  I feel like there is still time for Georgia to show that even if it’s not a hundred percent accomplishment of all 12 recommendations, I think the member states are looking at how committed is Georgia to fulfilling these goals.  Because the work will continue obviously;  candidate status is the next milestone on a path to membership.  So, I think that there is still time for the European Union member states to see by December, it’s really, you know, months away, whether the leadership here is truly focused on what the people of Georgia have made clear they want.  And that’s a European future. 

RFE/RL:  It sounds so, so simple.  It’s obvious and clear what the citizens of Georgia want for their country, and still why it is not implementing their desire, why the politicians do not seem accountable to their voters.  Why is the ruling party causing so many questions about Georgia’s future, its foreign policy priorities, et cetera.  I will go into more details too, but why do you think it doesn’t happen?  It’s so easy, and actually it will be beneficial for any politician to follow the will of the voters and the will of the citizens. 

Ambassador Degnan:  I don’t mean to suggest that these are easy reforms, these are difficult reforms.  I understand that.  Georgia is in the process of building a framework for democracy that is complex and needs to be strong and resilient, and independent.  That’s something that the United States has been very proud to help Georgia with over the last 30 years – not just helping to stimulate economic growth, diversify markets, reduce Georgia’s dependence on Russia, but also help Georgia build strong, resilient, independent democratic institutions.  That is a process that never stops.  As we see in the United States, 247 years of working on our democracy, and we still have work to do.  Georgia has, as I said, made some pretty impressive progress just in 25 years of working on this, 20-25 years.  But it does take everyone staying focused on the same, best interests of the country as a whole.  Not on their, perhaps their own vested interests or the interests of a small group, but what is in the best interest of the country as a whole.  And again, I think you’re right.  That means paying attention to what the people are saying they want.  When I’ve traveled around Georgia, I had the privilege of meeting with many different Georgians from all over the country, all different fields, whether it’s farmers or teachers or students or businesspeople, scientists.  What they want, what I hear from them is they want stability.  They want prosperity.  They want opportunities.  They want freedom.  They want freedom to pursue their business ideas.  They want a level playing field so that they can pursue their business ideas.  They want justice in an independent, impartial judiciary that is responsive and transparent.  They want fair elections that aren’t troubled by the kinds of allegations that have been pretty consistent throughout most of Georgia’s elections, whether it’s under previous administrations or more recently, of intimidation of candidates, intimidation of supporters of opposition, vote buying, abuse of administrative resources.  These are not new tactics, but these are so damaging to the democratic process.  I sincerely hope that the 2024 parliamentary elections will be an improvement over the last, the most recent elections.

RFE/RL:  I don’t know whether it is fine to say something in an interview to the successor to the next Ambassador, but you mentioned elections and I remember during hearing Robin Dunnigan also talked about the elections and about, if I’m not mistaken, about the long-term monitoring, about the importance of monitoring the next elections very well.  What would be your advice concerning elections to your successor? 

Ambassador Degnan:  I think my advice is more to voters: come out and vote.  Make sure that your voice is heard, that your vote counts. The U.S. Embassy is going to be supporting voter education campaigns that are designed to help people understand not only why their vote matters, but in these elections in particular where 90% of the precincts are going to shift to electronic voting for the first time, voters need to understand how that works.  The precinct workers have to understand how that works.  Otherwise, I think we’ll have more confusion in the district and district precincts and local precinct.  Because, we saw in the municipal elections where 10% of the precincts were electronic, there were some more technical problems than anything else, but that can slow down the whole process when you have a whole country voting electronically.  And we saw in the United States, electronic voting does not guarantee that everything is clean and fair.  Those can be manipulated too, if people aren’t trained in how to use them, if voters don’t understand how it works.  So, these are important elections and that education campaign, not only about why your vote matters, but about the very technical way to vote, is also important.  The long-term election monitoring is very important as well because, I think we’ve seen in elections, it’s not just election day where things can go wrong.  It actually happens months before, when people are intimidated, when votes are bought, when people are threatened, if they don’t vote a certain way, they’re gonna lose their job.  Again, these are tactics that Georgia has suffered from for many, many years under different administrations.  So, I think it’s very important that this kind of election monitoring happens early on in the process just to help the voters of Georgia then have confidence in the outcome.  It’s less about the United States having confidence in the outcome than about the voters and the people of Georgia believing that their elections really are fair and reflect the will of the people.  In 2020, because of COVID, it wasn’t possible to have international observers.  And I think that played an important role in why those elections were questioned by so many, why there were so many allegations and complaints, because you didn’t have the usual assistance of outside observers helping to point out where there were problems and helping to verify that the process was fair or was not fair.  No one has said that the 2020 elections were fair.  No one has said that the 2021 municipal elections were fair.  That is unfortunate and I hope that the 2024 elections will be better. 

RFE/RL:  For democracy to be successful, to be effective, it’s very important that the decision-making process is transparent.  Do you see how the decisions, the most important decisions in Georgia are made?  What’s their logic, for instance, initiating draft laws like those so-called agents law, Russian law, as we called it then, and then withdrawal of it.  There are some initiatives also in the air, hanging in the air, and we are kind of in a regime of expectance of something else or how decisions are made on judiciary, on judicial reforms.  The U.S. spends several dozens, thousands of dollars, more than $30 million, right?  So how the decisions, political decisions are made in Georgia, who is making decisions in this country? 

Ambassador Degnan:  It’s a very important point.  And one of the things that I think Georgia has been working on for many years is increasing the transparency, whether it’s in the way Parliament functions or the way that the judiciary functions, or the way the executive functions. I mean, you have a number of independent agencies that are designed to provide that, like the state auditor’s office, the state inspection service.  These are independent.  They’re intended to be independent agencies that provide that kind of oversight and transparency so the citizens can know that the government is accountable to them.  This is the foundation of democracy, government by the people, for the people.  The government needs to work for the people, and the people have the right to know that that is what the government is doing.  These independent agencies are there to do that.  Just as some civil society organizations function as a way of holding the government accountable for the citizens on behalf of the citizens.  Journalists, the same thing.  The voice of the people is the media and they ask tough questions.  And, the government is supposed to be able to answer those questions so that the citizens can have confidence that the government members of parliament, the judges, are working for the people’s best interests.  I think there has been some progress on that in recent judicial reform, measures that have increased the transparency in the way judges are selected.  There’s more work to be done, I think not everyone is satisfied with steps that were taken.  They fell short of, really, the kind of meaningful reform that many different Venice Commission opinions have asked.  And, the Venice Commission is a panel of legal experts on European law.  Since Georgia is aspiring to integrate into the European Union, it’s very important that legislation that is enacted be consistent with European Union legislation.  I commend the Parliament for seeking Venice Commission opinions on draft legislation to see whether it is consistent or not with European Union law.  When the opinion comes back and says it’s not, or it is, then that, again, is a clear roadmap for the Parliament.  Take these steps or don’t take these steps if you want to be harmonious with European Union law.  The foreign agents law that you just mentioned, there is a very clear assessment by OSCE/ODIHR, very clearly saying this law is a step back from harmonization with European Union standards and regulations.  It is unfortunately modeled and would’ve had the same effect as the Kremlin-style foreign agents law that is designed to stigmatize and silence independent voices, independent organizations that are working, Georgians working on behalf of other Georgians, whether it’s helping people with disability, helping the elderly, farmers’ cooperatives, business organizations, media organizations, youth groups.  I mean, the breadth of organizations that would’ve been negatively impacted by that style of law is quite clear.  And I would hope the chapter is closed on introducing any kind of law like this, again, when an assessment comes down so clearly that this was not in Georgia’s interest. 

RFE/RL:  Yeah. I would love to hope, too, about the discussion.  The issue is still alive and discussion continues the same rhetoric you can see anywhere.  Apart from friends you mentioned, I wouldn’t, wouldn’t be wrong, I think if I say that as I remember that you are the most criticized U.S. Ambassador in Georgia by the politicians, particularly ruling party and allied groups politicians.  What was the motive of that, of those issues?  We all know those topics like you interfering in judiciary or you trying to drag Georgia into the war with Russia, et cetera.  So what’s the basis, what’s the reason for that?  Do you perceive it’s personal, do you see it as part of something bigger?  Quite recently, Mrs. Zakharova from the Russian MFA mentioned you.  It was her statement about the protest rally in Batumi when people met Russian tourists protesting not to let them enter Georgia.  So, how do you perceive it? 

Ambassador Degnan:  You know, politicians say what they have to say, even sometimes when they know it’s not true.  So, I don’t take this personally.  What is most important is what the people of Georgia are saying, and that is very clear.  They want Europe, and they have made that very clear many different times, whether it was in 2020, whether it was in 2022, whether it was in March, whether it was with the ship, whether it was with this concert the other night.  It is very clear what the people of Georgia want.  It’s also clear what they don’t want.  I think they’ve made that clear as well many times.  When we as Georgia’s strongest, best supporter, best partner and friend, whether it’s supporting Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, whether it’s helping Georgia with its economic growth, whether it’s helping Georgia be better able to defend its borders and deter aggression, when we speak out, that’s what we’re speaking out about.  We’re speaking out about what we have been working with in partnership with Georgia for 30 years.  Very simple things, helping Georgia better defend its borders, protect its sovereignty and territory integrity, stimulate its economy, create better jobs so people can stay here, stay in their towns and villages, have a good life, raise their families where they want to, and not have to go overseas or not have to go to Tbilisi and help Georgia build strong, resilient democratic institutions.  Because Georgians want to live in a European democracy, it is very clear.  As long as that is the goal of the Georgian people, then that is what we are here to support.  I think our track record is very clear.  As I said, you can look anywhere in this country, and you will see the evidence that that is what the United States has been doing for Georgia, with Georgia, with the government, as well as the people for over 30 years.  I am confident that we will have the same kind of productive relationship for the next years to come. 

RFE/RL:  You say that you don’t perceive it personally.  But still, don’t you think it’s damaging for Georgia’s foreign policy for Georgia’s Western future, Euro-Atlantic future? 

Ambassador Degnan:  You know, I think people can put this in perspective.  There are people who are trying to undermine the close partnership, the strong partnership between the United States and Georgia.  They have their own reasons for doing that.  They have their own vested interest at stake.  I think that is what this is designed to do.  It’s not just the United States that some of these voices are trying to discredit, it’s any independent voice.  It’s any voice that is trying to speak out on behalf of Georgia’s European democratic future.  I think that Georgian people are savvy enough – at least the ones I’ve met have been very savvy about this.  They are used to this kind of Russian, pro-Russian disinformation.  And, I think they can see when people are trying to damage Georgia’s partnerships with its closest friends, with its true strategic partners, the ones who will be here for Georgia, because we have been here with Georgia for over 30 years, and we’re not going anywhere.  We’re going to be here with Georgia as long as the Georgian people aspire for a democratic future. 

RFE/RL:  Part of the campaign.  Actually, it was confirmed.  It was financed and organized.  I mean disinformation campaign against you personally.  But we don’t have time to go into details of that.  I would like to ask about George’s foreign policy and its choices and how would you describe the benchmarks or red lines that Georgia shouldn’t cross to stay on the Euro Atlantic track, and how do you see it in this context?  And of course, we haven’t mentioned full scale war, war against Ukraine by Russia so far.  We were discussing Georgia’s internal politics mostly, but in this whole context, the Georgian government’s decision to establish a strategic partnership with China.  That was a visit, and that was a decision, some kind of surprise for Georgian society.  How do you see that?  You made a statement that it’s Georgia’s choice, that it seemed that it was an important visit for Georgia.  But is there anything else you would like to say about?

Ambassador Degnan:  Well, Georgia’s been doing business with China for many years, so there’s nothing new in having an economic relationship with China and Georgia.

RFE/RL:  And Georgia is not the only country having strategic partnerships with China, but still.

Ambassador Degnan:  Exactly, I think it’s important to proceed with caution when you are moving into making political commitments with China.  Even in the economic realm, it’s important to have transparency and to ensure that any deals that you, or commitments you make are in Georgia’s best interest, not just China’s best interest.  I think the joint statement that was signed was quite expansive in terms of the political commitments that Georgia signed up to.  I noticed that there was a clear commitment by Georgia to China’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.  I did not see a reciprocal pledge by China, by the People’s Republic of China to Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.  That is the top priority of this country, is ensuring this country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, particularly when 20% of the territory is occupied by Russia, a country with which China has had increasingly close relations.  So economic trade is something that Georgia, as I said, has had with China for some time.  But, some of the commitments on the political side that seem to endorse China’s attempt to reform the world into a more authoritarian version that is in competition with the rules-based international order that Georgia has been a part of and has benefited from, as have we all, it has brought greater prosperity, it has brought stability and peace to much of the world.  It has raised billions of people out of poverty. and it has ensured independence and basic freedoms that I know are not new to Georgia, but in fact are very much a part of Georgia’s DNA.  That is why Georgia has always had a European orientation, because the values that Georgians have going back for centuries are the same values that we, and Europeans, share.  It is what makes us such close partners and friends, natural friends and partners, because we share these values.  I question whether those are the values that the People’s Republic of China shares with Georgia. 

RFERL:  Sanctions issue – just recently from the beginning of August, it’s prohibited to export to Russia the cars imported from the United States.  Is there anything else that might be added to that? 

Ambassador Degnan:  Well, we have to remain vigilant.  The purpose of the sanctions and the export controls is to restrict Russia’s access to components and equipment that are showing up in the battlefield in Ukraine, that are showing up in the bombs that are being used to blow up schools, hospitals, apartment buildings to kill civilians.  What we’re trying to do here is to stop this war as soon as possible by limiting, restricting Russia’s access to the kinds of weapons and equipment that they’re using to continue the war.  Russia started this war.  Russia could stop it today.  They’re not.  Putin is choosing to continue this war.  While that’s happening, what we need is the cooperation from countries like Georgia that have land borders with Russia to restrict their access to components that are often in cars, in washing machines, in regular appliances but that are then showing up in missiles and drones and bombs. 

RFE/RL:  So that could not be the last step. 

Ambassador Degnan:  We have to stay vigilant.  The people who want to evade sanctions and export controls are always looking for new ways around it.  We have had very good cooperation with the Georgian authorities.  We’ve been working with customs, with the Revenue Service, with the Border Patrol, Maritime Transport Agency, for many years on training, making sure they have the equipment they need to know what is coming in and out of Georgia’s borders.  That’s in Georgia’s interest as well.  This is for Georgia’s security as well.  And we just have to remain vigilant.  That was the message of Ambassador O’Brien and the UK and the EU counterparts that came here a couple weeks ago, was to say, thank you for the close cooperation, and please, let’s stay vigilant so that we can stop this war as soon as possible.  That is our goal. 

RFE/RL:  Some time ago I asked a question to the president of Georgia.  I had a chance to do that about Georgia’s defense capabilities.  And the question was simple, whether Georgia is safer than it used to be before the start of the war in Ukraine.  May I ask the same question to you?  The charter on strategic partnership between the U.S. and Georgia signed in 2009 has its security and defense chapter.  Can we say anything about its dynamics, about U.S.-Georgia cooperation dynamics in that sphere?  I understand details may not be stated publicly, but still what could you say about Georgia’s condition now?  The security is not only about defense capabilities, of course, but still, we see that amid the war in Ukraine the security system is being changed already, at least countries, including the U.S. seeking some new schemes or testing something new, new partnerships or some new ideas.  A very interesting summit is expected this week with the participation of the U.S. President. 

So what can we say about Georgia?  Is it safer?  Is it more protected than it used to be until the full-scale war in Ukraine? 

Ambassador Degnan:  What I can say is that our military cooperation is as strong as ever. It’s more important than ever as a result of Russia’s war against Ukraine.  I think the fact that our militaries, the Georgian and American militaries have trained together, have exercised together, have served together and sacrificed together, is a sign of the close cooperation – the close partnership that we have there, that’s been built up over years, over decades actually.  And, as a result of that close cooperation, the Georgian Defense Forces are stronger, the Coast Guard is stronger, the Border Patrol is stronger, law enforcement is stronger.  This is the result of America’s partnership with Georgia in these sectors over many, many years.  The National Guard, as I mentioned, is an area we have worked very closely with on these kinds of emergency responses, but it’s also a broader resilience factor.  So. I would say that Georgia is stronger in terms of being able to defend its borders.

RFE/RL:  Is the Georgian government active enough in delivering, introducing their needs to the U.S.?

Ambassador Degnan:  We take our cue from the Georgian government.  We stand ready to support Georgia in any way.  I think everyone is very sensitive to the situation that Georgia is being a neighbor, being occupied already by Russia.  And there is no doubt that Russia is threatening Georgia and is pressuring Georgia in this environment, as they always have, whether it’s with Belarus recognizing the occupied territories or some other kind of pressure.  So, I think everyone is very sensitive to that.  We take our cue from the Georgian government, what the Georgian government is comfortable doing in this very difficult situation.  We are ready to support.  But that cooperation continues with military cooperation.  And you mentioned our regular meetings.  There are regular discussions between the U.S. military and Georgian military on everything from exercises on modernizing the Georgian Defense Forces, on replacing Soviet era equipment with newer equipment.

All of this has been happening for many, many years in order to make sure that Georgia’s Defense Forces are strong enough to defend your borders, that is going to continue.  And again, we actually have Agile Spirit, a multinational exercise coming up soon.  Georgia used to just participate in these exercises.  It has advanced to the point where it can organize and host multinational exercises like Agile Spirit, that’s quite complicated and sophisticated.  All of this cooperation and exercising and training together that we’ve been doing is to help Georgia become more prepared for NATO membership.  This is all leading to that point of being prepared to be a member of NATO and to defend Georgia’s borders. 

RFE/RL:  Just two words about NATO.  Do you see it as a far perspective?

Ambassador Degnan:  If Georgia does the homework, I think Georgia has a clear path.  Again, it’s just like with the European Union, the annual national program is a document that Georgia presents and agrees with the NATO members.  And it’s the roadmap.  If Georgia fulfills the hard work, and it includes the same kind of political reforms that are required for EU membership.  So, again, if Georgia’s leadership can have the courage and the strength to come together and do the homework that is laid out in the 12 recommendations and in the annual national program, it will be hard for any member state of the EU or NATO ally to say no.  But there is work to be done, and now is the time for progress. 

RFE/RL:  What’s the best thing, best part of your staying here you will remember about Georgia? 

Ambassador Degnan:  Nino, without a doubt, it’s the people.  Everywhere I’ve been, I have been so inspired, so impressed by the Georgian people.  Not just the wonderful hospitality, not just the incredible generosity, but the spirit and the determination and their love of their country, their history, the unique culture and traditions that there are here.  I feel so privileged to have met these inspiring Georgians all over this country.  I will miss this.  I will miss all of them.  I want to thank all of them for their hospitality, for making me always feel so welcome and for the love that I felt from Georgians toward America, toward the American people, toward me and my embassy, and toward all we are trying to do together to make Georgia that strong, secure, prosperous democracy.  That’s what the people of Georgia deserve.  I will do everything in my power to help them get it. 

RFE/RL:  What will be your next position? 

Ambassador Degnan:  I will be a foreign policy advisor, a senior foreign policy advisor in Washington for the next two years.  I haven’t been back to Washington for eight years, so it’s time to go back and spend a little bit of time in my country.  I will do everything I can for Georgia while I’m there.  Madloba, thank you. 

RFE/RL:  Thank you. Unfortunately, I have to stop our conversation here.  So, many questions left, and I wish you good luck. 

Ambassador Degnan:  Thank you so much.  It’s been a pleasure, Nino.  Thank you very much.  Thanks!