Ambassador Degnan's Remarks to Media at the Farewell Press Conference
Ambassador Kelly Degnan: I want to thank the kind Georgians all over this country who have shown such warmth, such generosity, such hospitality to me that I do truly feel like I’ve become a part of their families, they’ve welcomed me into their homes, into their communities, they’ve shared their experiences, their hopes, their challenges, and we have always valued that exchange with our Georgian friends. It helps us know how best to help this country, how to support the work that’s being done by many, many dedicated Georgians all over the country, whether it’s NGOs, whether it’s civil society, whether it’s government agencies who are working for the best interests of this country.
All of our support over the past 30 year partnership that we’ve had with Georgia has gone to helping Georgia better defend its borders, better deter aggression, to stimulate economic growth here, to generate good jobs so that Georgians can see a future in their country, in their communities, can contribute to the strength of the Georgian economy, and of course, to help Georgia build strong, resilient, democratic institutions. It’s the clear choice of the Georgian people to become members of the European Union, of NATO, and the United States is very privileged and proud to help Georgia along that path. We have seen incredible progress, very impressive progress by Georgia, and we are here to help support that process to continue.
Again, I am very sad about having to leave this country, I think everyone who has been in my place before me has felt the same way. It’s so hard to say farewell to the many, many Georgians who I’m so grateful to for their friendship, for helping me better understand this rich, unique culture, the traditions of Georgia, the history of this wonderful country but I will have to say goodbye and I will take with me incredible memories, so many memories that make me smile every time I think about friends in Tusheti, in Racha, in Svaneti, in Adjara, in Samtskhe-Javakheti, all over this country, Imereti, – it just makes me smile to think of them and the wonderful things they have done for me and for my whole team at the U.S. Embassy. We are, as I said, extremely privileged and proud of the partnership that the United States and Georgia have had for the past 30 years.
I welcome your questions here. This is a chance for me to both say goodbye, but also, as I said, to say my sincere and deep thank you and how grateful I am to all of the Georgians who have been so warm, supportive, and I feel such wonderful friends to the United States.
Question by Mtavari regarding anti-Western rhetoric by the ruling party and personal attacks on Ambassador Degnan – on this background has the government of Georgia got any closer or further away from the West since your arrival three and a half years ago?
Ambassador Kelly Degnan: Well, thank you very much for that question, or several questions in there. It’s a very important topic because a lot of the work that we’re doing here in Georgia is to help Georgia make progress, continue to make progress on that path to Europe that the majority of Georgians are still very dedicated to, very committed to. I think we do continue to see progress on that and as I mentioned, there has been impressive progress. We are working with many, many, government ministries, we’re working at the local level on the steps that are needed, the reforms that are needed for Georgia to be eligible for European Union and NATO membership. We want Georgia to succeed in that endeavor and that is why we have been working with Georgia so closely over the decades and we will continue to work with Georgia on that path because we are dedicated to Georgia’s success.
You know, politicians are politicians. I certainly don’t take personally anything people say about me. I do think that there are some people who are, who sometimes react over emotionally. I think the focus should be on getting the work done. There’s a roadmap, very clear steps that need to be taken, and if those government leaders and political leaders follow that roadmap that’s been given to them and come together in an inclusive process, I think that shows the commitment of the political leaders here to fulfill the demands of their public, to reach the European Union at least the next stage, but it also shows courage – it shows the political courage that’s necessary to do this hard work. Reforms are difficult. I think everyone knows that.
Unfortunately, I think there is a targeted campaign to try and undermine public support for European path of Georgia. Georgians are used to this kind of pro-Russia disinformation campaign. This kind of propaganda has been bombarding Georgians for many, many years, if not decades. So, I am confident that when the truth is made available to Georgians, which is part of what the press does, what the media does, then Georgians will be able to make informed choices.
I have never met some of the people that make comments about me. They’ve never met me; so, I can’t really take them personally. But I do think that it is important that those who are trying to confuse Georgians, those who are trying to divide this society or keep the divisions and polarization strong, those people need to be put aside. Georgians need to hear the truth. And, I don’t think anyone should fear the truth. I hope that the media will continue to provide the public with accurate, balanced reporting because that is also such an important role in a democracy. Thank you.
Question by Formula regarding Georgian Dream’s hate speech against Ambassador Degnan and the strategic partner country – how would you asses this rhetoric and what advice would you give to your successor Ambassador?
Ambassador Kelly Degnan: Thank you very much. As I said, I would say there is a very intensive propaganda campaign from pro-Russian forces in Georgia and in other countries as well, are trying to undermine that strong support, that strong partnership between the United States and Georgians. It doesn’t seem to be working. I think most Georgians, as I said, are, savvy about propaganda. They can distinguish the truth from conspiracy theories and lies. And I think we need to look at why, why are these people saying what they’re saying? Is it because they don’t have the facts, the information? Is it because they have other motives? What are the motives behind this? This is the question, the real question. We have had Georgian officials senior leaders distance themselves in our private meetings from these comments, and I think they understand that this is a campaign that is designed to weaken the ties between us. It’s not working. We’re here doing the kind of work that we’ve been doing for 30 years, as I said, to try and help Georgia strengthen its defense, stimulate its economy, strengthen its democratic institutions, and we will continue to do this if it’s in an environment of pro-Russian propaganda that is trying to confuse people and divide people, we can stay focused on what is really important, and that’s what is in the best interest of Georgia.
What’s in the best interest of Georgia is to stay on the path to Europe. If you look around Europe, you see concrete benefits in terms of increased GDP, better jobs, better education, all around improved opportunities for the citizens there, and we want that for Georgia too. Georgian citizens deserve to have all of those things. This is, I think, also the orientation of Georgia over centuries is toward Europe. When I have read your literature, when I’ve learned about your history, it becomes even more clear that the values that we share, freedom, independence, rule of law, respect for human rights – these are values that have been part of Georgia’s culture for centuries. They are not new. They are not imposed on Georgia. These are coming from Georgia’s own traditions and histories. And becoming a part of the European Union means greater protection for your traditions and your cultures. I think you’ll see that anytime you visit one of the member states in the European Union, just how rich and preserved and protected their individual cultures and traditions are. So that is not at risk. Georgia’s church, Georgia’s unique and wonderful culture, its traditions will continue on and in fact be better protected under the European Union system.
My advice to the next ambassador would be the same – stay focused on what is really important, and that’s Georgia’s best interests. I think when Georgia’s political leaders come together and they focus on Georgia’s best interests, this country always benefits and always moves forward. We want to see that continue, and the United States is standing by to help in any way we can to support Georgia’s continued progress to becoming a strong, resilient democracy.
Question by TV Pirveli regarding shadow rule in Georgia – is Bidzina Ivanishvili an oligarch and an informal ruler of Georgia?
Ambassador Kelly Degnan: Well, that’s an important question and it’s a complicated one because in any society, in any democracy, you’re going to have a lot of influencers. It’s perfectly normal when you have businesses, when you have special interest groups, then you will see that kind of influence on legislation and on policies – so that is almost inevitable. Where we are trying to work with Georgia and have, I think, had some success stories is in crafting legislation that eliminates undue influence. And that is the issue, I guess, in many countries. We had it in the United States, and we addressed it through antitrust legislation. Each country finds its own way and that’s why it’s dangerous to just copy somebody else’s law and adopt it as your own, because each country has its own specific situation to address through legislation. But fundamentally, it’s about removing undue influence from politics, from decisions that are made economically so that there is a level playing field in Georgia, whether it’s for foreign investors or for Georgian investors to know that you are all coming into a transparent, fair system that is applied equally to everyone. That also requires an independent judiciary. So that when there are business disputes, when there are complaints filed after elections, when there are any kind of disputes, you know, you have a place where these will be resolved in an impartial transparent matter.
That’s one of the reasons that we and the European Union and many others have put such an emphasis on helping Georgia with reforms to the judiciary, because we see that as so central. And, it’s something that I would say Georgia has made some good progress on over the last 10 years. But of course, there’s more work to be done. And, naturally the United States continues to try to help Georgia’s judiciary become more efficient, more effective, more transparent, more impartial and independent. We will continue to do so.
Question by Georgian Public Broadcaster regarding Ambassador Degnan’s remarks to RFE/RL on electronic election system – can you specify what you meant by the flaws in the system and what will make the 2024 elections fair?
Ambassador Kelly Degnan: Thank you very much. Yes, I heard that some people either misinterpreted or misunderstood, either deliberately or unintentionally. The fact is that the majority of Georgians have never voted electronically before. So it’s common sense that they would need to have information about the process, how it works, how it’s done, and that only ensures that the election will go more smoothly, and that people, both the precinct workers and the voters themselves understand how electronic voting differs from what they’re used to in the past and how it works. There’s nothing controversial about that – it’s common sense that you would need some kind of an education campaign. I’m confident that the Central Election Commission will do what’s necessary over the coming months. We have more than a year until next October to inform the public and to train the Central Election Commission workers at all levels to ensure that the election goes smoothly next October.
When this was done at the April by elections, there were some glitches, there were some problems, and helping to train people how to use these machines is very important. I would also say, as I said in the interview, electronic voting is not a hundred percent foolproof. We’ve seen that in many other countries that have used electronic voting, including my own. Some of them have decided not to do electronic voting after experiencing it, because it does have certain limitations. Educating people about how it works is very important to it being a smooth election next year without any delays and technical glitches.
Fair elections – you can just look at the ODHIR reports that are issued after the 2020 and the 2021 elections. No one called them fair. There were certain things that were good, I think, in 2020 they commented that it was a well administered election in the middle of COVID, that was quite a challenge. So, there are positive things, but again, what we want to see is every election be a better election each time a better election. Part of the complaints last time was, again, comes back to the judiciary and the feeling of many voters who submitted complaints that their complaints were not given due process, were dismissed, summarily without investigation, without looking into the matter. What’s important is that voters felt that their complaints were not fully adjudicated, voters felt that the elections weren’t fair. And the OSCE and other outside election observers agreed with that.
The election monitoring mission next year, I think, is because people recognize this is a very important election for Georgia in 2024. In 2020 international election observers were not able to come because of COVID, and I think that that was partly why there were so many questions and so many disputes at the end of the process. Election monitoring is extremely important. That’s why it’s done all over the world for many, many different elections. It helps improve elections each and every time by pointing out where the problems were. And more fundamentally, it gives voters confidence in the outcome, and it helps resolve differences in disputes in the right way, which is through the courts or through the election commission process. But people have to have confidence in those institutions. That is part of what the United States is helping Georgia with and other friends of Georgia, is to strengthen those institutions so that fundamental processes like voting elections are run smoothly and are not challenged in the end.
Question by Imedi regarding the direct flights and the free trade agreement with the US – can you explain why these issues are being delayed?
Ambassador Kelly Degnan: Thank you very much for your question. Both are really important, and there are two issues that we’ve been working on for some time. There was a lot of progress made on the direct flights before COVID hit, and once COVID hit and the whole airline industry changed as well as some of the travel patterns changed, we basically had to start from scratch in terms of finding an airline that would be interested in making this part of their regular operations. We continue to work on the direct flights. I’m sure anybody who’s flown to the U.S. knows how great that would be to have that.
On the free trade agreement – we simply aren’t working on very many free trade agreements under this administration, but we continue to raise the value of having a free trade agreement discussion with Georgia. It’s important with free trade agreements to be sure it’s good for Georgia as well, because of course, when you have a free trade agreement, you’re opening up your market completely, and sometimes that works to Georgia’s benefit and sometimes it works to the other country’s benefit. So it’s important that this be an agreement that’s beneficial to Georgia as well as to the United States. But even without a free trade agreement, we have very good business trades, business connections between Georgians and American companies. And, we work very hard at the embassy to promote that, to increase that, to connect Georgian businesses with American businesses, and we’ve had some real success in that.
I hope that we will see continued U.S. interest in investing in Georgia. I think there’s some great opportunities here, and we’ve seen energy companies come in, we’ve seen logistics companies come in, we’ve seen agriculture companies come in to work with Georgian businesses. So, we continued to do what we can to increase the amount of FDI between our two countries.
Question by IPN regarding Georgia’s values alignment with the European ones – considering midterm oral evaluation of the progress on 12 priorities by the EU and considering Georgian government’s steps in foreign policy, do you think Georgia has the same values with the EU countries and is Georgia defending them similarly with the EU countries?
Ambassador Kelly Degnan: Georgia absolutely shares these values. And, as I said, I have been just so impressed as I’ve learned about Georgia’s history and Georgia’s culture – how long these have been a part of Georgia’s culture – that deep love of freedom, that commitment to independence, that desire to live in a country, build a country that is based on respect for human rights, rule of law, for the fundamental principles that I think connect the United States and Georgia too, which is, again, a deep love of our faith, of our families, of freedom. This is very much a part of both of our cultures and why I think Americans feel so comfortable and so welcome in this country. And, I hope Georgians feel the same when they visit us in the United States. I think that is why there’s such a strong orientation toward Europe, because there are these basic principles that Georgia shares with Europeans and with Americans, and truly with any democratic freedom loving people around the world.
I have no doubt that is going to continue to drive Georgia to make the reforms that are reflected in the 12 recommendation. Those twelve recommendations aren’t for the European Union, they’re for Georgia. They’re the same reforms that Georgia has been working on since you regained your in independence. Building a strong resilient democracy is something that Georgians have been doing in 1918, and again, and since you regained your independence. And, I’m confident that you will succeed in that, because I just feel that is what Georgians are made of – that’s your DNA is to live in a free, open, independent society.
One of the core connections that we have with Georgia is our steadfast support for your sovereignty and your territorial integrity. And sovereignty means being able to protect your culture, your history, your traditions, and we want to help Georgia be able to do that because we so admire not just what you’ve done in the last 30 years, but what you’ve done over the past 26 centuries.
Question by Palitranews regarding Ambassador Degnan’s service in Georgia – what would you have done differently and what legacy are you leaving to your successor, what’s your advice to her?
Ambassador Kelly Degnan: The only regret I have is to see the polarization continuing in the country. When I arrived in January of 2020, the country was already in the midst of a crisis that resulted from the July 20, 2019, events with Gavrilov taking the speaker’s chair and speaking Russian in Georgia. The country was already divided. I think, unfortunately, further events happened that deepened that polarization. I worked very hard with the EU ambassador, with other ambassadors who care very much about the stability and the progress of this country, on something that was, we hoped, going to reduce the polarization. It’s very important, I think, for people to remember that it was the political parties, including Georgian Dream, including all the parties that were elected in the 2020 election, that asked the United States and the European Union to help facilitate them reaching a solution.
All of the proposals that were reflected in the April 19th agreement were put on the table by the political parties themselves in one form or another. So this was not something that the United States or European Union created, this was something that was negotiated by Georgia’s political leaders. That’s why it was such an important step forward when 129 out of 150 members of Parliament signed onto that April 19th agreement signed onto supporting the idea of working together constructively in the Parliament to advance Georgia’s reforms and advance Georgia’s best interests. Again, this was the United States and the European Union providing a place, just a place and some encouragement, maybe sometimes some technical expertise on different issues, including things like electronic voting to help the political leaders of Georgia negotiate a solution. We hope that that is what Georgian political leaders will be doing in Parliament very soon, because that’s how democracy works.
But the electronic voting proposal was put on the table by the political parties, not us. We actually encouraged moving slowly with that, or taking it step by step, because it is different and it is complicated. It’s also expensive to buy all the equipment. And so, the idea of testing it on 10% of the precincts, and then I think the proposal was to, then in the next election, try 70% of the precincts and then take it from there based on how smoothly it went and where there were problems. I think we were all surprised that it went from 10% to 90%. That’s quite ambitious. And again, why it will be important that there is an information campaign for voters and a very good training campaign for precinct workers.
Where I hope my legacy will be is in terms of the engagement we’ve had with Young Georgians. It has certainly been the highlight of my experience here is to have conversations with young Georgians all over this country to hear about their dreams, to see how dedicated they are to the success of their country, to see how much they wanna be able to stay in their own communities and have good careers raise their families in an environment that allows for that kind of opportunity, that allows good education, good jobs. I have learned so much from them, whether it was at our American Spaces, we have 17 across the country, or at universities that I’ve had the privilege of speaking at, at sports events where you meet kids that are really dedicated and disciplined about something that they’re passionate about. So I hope it will be in my engagement with the youth that I think are such a bright future for this country.
I would also say with women entrepreneurs. I have been so pleased to meet so many women who are taking their small businesses or their larger businesses and developing them often with the help of USAID and training programs we have, giving them opportunities and exchange programs to meet with other entrepreneurs. They are just so inspiring to see the hard work they put into, and it often benefits, much more than their families, it often benefits their whole community by generating jobs. So I’ve learned a lot from the Georgians that I’ve talked to. It’s been, as I said, very inspiring. And, I hope that, I know that we will continue the kinds of exchanges across the board, whether it’s with the students or with judges, or with business people or with our government colleagues, so that they have a chance to learn about America and Americans have a chance to learn more directly about this wonderful country that I’ve been so, so privileged to serve in.
Thank you very much. I wanna also thank you particularly. I’ve spent a lot of time with many of you at many press event, and you have always been very cordial and direct in asking your questions. I very much appreciate your professionalism, and I wish you the best of luck. Dzalian didi madloba! Thank you!