Ambassador Kelly C. Degnan’s opening remarks during her virtual press conference (May 20)
Gamarjoba, and thank you for joining us today for this virtual press conference.
I’m pleased to speak to you after my first 3 months in Georgia about the relationship between our two countries and the assistance the United States is providing, especially in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The U.S. Government is providing global leadership in the humanitarian response to COVID-19, even while we battle the virus at home.
The United States has now committed almost $1 billion in COVID-specific health, humanitarian, and economic assistance. This is in addition to the funding the U.S. already provides to multilateral and non-governmental organizations that are helping communities around the world deal with the pandemic.
Here in Georgia, we are pleased to see Georgia’s public health system manage this unprecedented crisis so capably. The U.S. has partnered with Georgia for decades to help build a professional, responsive, quality national healthcare system, investing almost $140 million in U.S. assistance over the years. In that same spirit, the U.S. is continuing to provide assistance to help Georgia respond to the COVID-19 emergency now.
You are already aware that USAID is providing more than $2.7 million, and we recently announced an additional $3 million in assistance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These funds will help with infection prevention and control, disease surveillance efforts such as contact tracing, technical assistance for response and preparedness, and strengthening communications with the public.
Georgia’s longstanding partnership between the United States Defense Threat Reduction Agency, or DTRA, and the CDC is really proving its value now. For many years, we have trained medical experts here in Georgia to respond to public health threats like the one we face today, and that cooperation continues. DTRA and the Office of Defense Cooperation have also provided almost $500,000 worth of PPE, much of it purchased from Georgian companies, to several ministries, including the Defense, Health, and Internal Affairs ministries.
I was delighted to join Health Minister Tikaradze last Friday for the arrival of 4,000 gold standard PCR test kits and more PPE to help Georgia increase its testing efforts and help protect its health care providers.
And we are looking for more ways the United States can help.
We are working with private companies to deliver medical supplies and partnering with local civil society organizations to support at-risk communities, like the elderly and the disabled, as well as ethnic minorities. We are working with the government to support the continuation of essential public services. And we are supporting entrepreneurs seeking innovative ways to reduce the spread of the virus.
U.S. companies are also pitching in to help. Members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia have donated millions of lari to the Stop Cov-19 Fund. The Marriott Hotel Moxy, Radisson Park Hotel, and Sheraton Grand Tbilisi have offered their properties as quarantine spaces. Coca-Cola has provided beverages to those complying with quarantine requirements. AmCham member companies have offered longer grace periods for loan repayment, and donated laboratory testing kits, personal protective equipment, and technology to allow students to continue their education through distance learning. This reflects the spirit of generous American philanthropy and corporate social responsibility to help in a time of need.
We also want to support Georgia’s economic recovery from the pandemic, through our existing assistance programs, as well as COVID-specific initiatives. All of our economies will need help rebounding from this crisis.
The Georgian government has already taken some important steps to help the economy recover. The U.S. is contributing to that effort in a variety of ways, with a particular focus on small and medium businesses, and the agriculture and tourism sectors. We want to help Georgia generate economic opportunities that will lead to more jobs and sustainable growth.
We’re going through this difficult period together, expanding the strong foundation we’ve established over the years. Through it all, the United States remains fully committed to our strategic partnership with Georgia, including our support of Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
That is why my first trip outside of Tbilisi was to the Administrative Boundary Line at Odzisi, which the State Security Services of Georgia kindly organized. It was truly heartbreaking to see how families and communities have been separated, people in the occupied territories are prevented from receiving life-saving medical care, and children are deprived of the education they deserve. Russia must withdraw its forces and fulfill its obligations under the 2008 ceasefire agreement. The people in these regions deserve to see meaningful progress toward a peaceful resolution of these conflicts.
Our strategic partnership with Georgia is based on our shared commitment to democracy, sustainable economic growth, and international security. COVID-19 has not stopped our work with Georgia in these important areas.
The United States encourages all sides to fully implement all elements of the March 8 agreement. The parties set the terms of the agreement, which is intended to de-polarize Georgia’s political tensions. Fulfilling the agreement will create the environment and the opportunity for greater pluralism in this year’s parliamentary elections, which is what Georgians have said they want. If the agreement fails, it will be a real set back for Georgia.
We also continue to work with Parliament on electoral reforms that are so crucial for those elections to be free and fair. The U.S. is providing expert guidance and advice on election reform legislation to ensure OSCE recommendations are fully incorporated into the law. These recommendations are specifically designed to avoid the shortfalls of previous elections and facilitate credible, free and fair elections in October.
Some of the OSCE election reform recommendations have been in OSCE reports going back to the 1990s. The Speaker of the Parliament has held several inclusive hearings over the past months to discuss the latest draft electoral reform legislation, which includes several important improvements.
There are still a few important gaps, though. We hope the final version will incorporate experts’ recommendations to strengthen provisions against voter intimidation and abuse of administrative resources, and provisions on dispute resolution, and the composition of the CEC, among others. We are also concerned about new provisions regulating the publishing of polling data that could limit the information available to the voting public.
The United States will continue to work closely with the government, which has done an impressive job steering Georgia through the COVID-19 crisis. We also want to expand engagement with Georgia’s innovative private sector. Our focus remains on helping Georgians, by strengthening citizen-centered governance and supporting inclusive economic growth..
Over the decades, Georgia has made real progress building its democratic institutions, as well as diversifying its economy, with help from the U.S. and other donors. We all recognize that there is more work to be done. More political pluralism, a more level playing field for political parties, a vibrant civil society, and free and independent media are essential for the development of fully independent institutions that serve as vital checks and balances in any healthy democracy.
The challenge for Georgia now is to use the institutions it has built and follow-through on reforms to solidify its democratic progress. We are already seeing Parliament exercise its new tools for better oversight of the executive branch of government.
No less important is an independent, professional judiciary. There are many dedicated legal professionals in Georgia – judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys – who want to practice law free from political interference. The U.S. has supported Georgia in making important strides toward creating an independent, transparent, efficient judicial system, and our support will continue. Further progress is essential for Georgia’s democratic development, as well as for Georgia’s economic growth. Investors need to know they can enforce a contract and resolve disputes in a fair and timely manner, on a level playing field, or they will go elsewhere to invest.
We recognize Georgia is in a tough neighborhood. We are doing some important work together to build Georgia’s resilience to malign influences, including in the cyber security and disinformation domains.
Our enduring commitment to security cooperation is an integral part of our strategic partnership. This is another area where years of hard work, training, exercises, and reforms have produced a modern, capable, professional defense force that the U.S. is proud to partner and deploy with. Georgia can also be proud of the outstanding job its defense forces and law-enforcement agencies have done to help Georgia’s COVID-19 response. They have played a critical role in managing this crisis.
The U.S. Army and the U.S. Marines are ready to resume training with the Georgian Defense Forces as soon as the COVID-19 restrictions lift. In fact, a contingent of U.S. Marines is in Georgia preparing to deploy to Afghanistan with a unit of Georgian soldiers later this summer.
So, as you can see, the friendship between our two countries is as strong as ever. I am proud to be the U.S. ambassador in a country that is committed to upholding the democratic values we share, and that is willing to do the hard work required to improve the quality of life for its citizens.
With that, I am happy to take your questions.