Ambassador Kelly’s Farewell Speech and Thoughts (February 22)
Thank you. It’s great to be here. I would like to thank GFSIS for hosting this event and would like to welcome …
As some of you know, I will be retiring from the Foreign Service after 33 years at the end of March. This also means that I will, with great regret, be ending my Ambassadorship here after nearly three years. From here I will go to Chicago to teach at Northwestern University. I begin in early April. While I’m excited about the position, I’m not sure why I gave myself such a small break! I will draw heavily on my time here to teach the next generation about the history and politics of the post-Soviet space. Let’s hope they listen.
But I want to take this time with you to reflect on my experience here and talk a little bit about where our bilateral relationship is going. As most of you know, Georgia is a country that is very close to my heart, and a place that I will never really say goodbye to.
As some of you may recall, I first visited Georgia in 1976 as a student. Those were very different times in this country. While I was greatly impressed by the Georgian people and the country’s rich culture, decades behind the Iron Curtain diminished its beauty and vitality. But coming from the harsh, gray Soviet industrial North, I could still feel an ease and lightness in this beautiful country; qualities that made it distinct and special among the Soviet republics.
Over my diplomatic career I visited Georgia many times, watching the country cast off the Soviet yoke and pursue democracy and its special destiny in a way no other former Soviet Republic could. Despite overwhelming odds and several tragic conflicts, Georgia has persevered and even thrived.
By the time I came here as Ambassador in 2015, Georgia had made a landmark achievement in the region, undergoing its first peaceful transition of power in 2012, but was facing another transition as President Saakashvili had left office less than one year before.
I was impressed by the astonishing pace of reforms that followed the Rose Revolution, as well as the new government’s ambitious agenda to move forward. When I travelled to regional centers like the mountain village of Mestia or the bustling seaside town of Batumi, I admired not only Georgia’s rich culture and history, but also the country’s rapid movement into the future.
During my first months here, I struck up great personal friendships with dynamic leaders like Parliament Speaker David Usupashvili, then-Economy Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, Minority Leader David Bakradze and many others, including church leaders, civil society experts, and prominent journalists. I met the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, a man whose role transcends politics and embodies the national spirit. All of these people shared one thing in common: their love of country and dedication to its advancement.
Despite a divisive and tense political atmosphere, there was one thing all the people I met agreed on: Georgia’s future was with the West.
Looking back on my three years here, I see many significant benchmarks of Georgia’s Western integration: signing an Association Agreement with the European Union, initiating the Substantial NATO-Georgia Package, opening the Joint Training and Evaluation Center, and achieving visa-free travel to the Schengen zone to name just a few. Perhaps most importantly, I was witness to three elections deemed open and largely transparent by international standards.
I want to pause here and recognize the efforts of each of Georgia’s post-Soviet governments and its citizens that have brought this incredible country to this point in time. Each new administration has contributed to the development of the country that Georgia is today. Regardless of how you may feel about a particular administration personally, it is all of you who have created the Georgian success story and led us to the present day. The only measure of a government’s success is whether Georgia’s citizens today are more prosperous, more secure, and better able to pursue the life they want to lead than they were yesterday.
Through our strong partnership, I can proudly say that the United States has also been a big part of these gains. Please allow me to recount a few of our successes since I’ve been here.
We have invested in your economy. For example, two U.S. companies are now on board to participate in the development of the Anaklia port facility. During this period, Georgia’s World Bank Doing Business ranking rose from 23rd to 9th and I believe our support had a significant role in helping Georgia achieve this remarkable accomplishment.
We have invested in your education system. The Millennium Challenge Corporation invested nearly $140 million in Georgia as part of its second Compact focused on workforce development through strategic investments across the education sector. In fact, I have personally re-opened several rural schools, out of more than 90 that MCC is refurbishing. By the end of MCC’s investment more than 37,000 Georgian schoolchildren and their teachers will have access to warm, safe, and modern schools. I was proud to contribute six U.S. Embassy-funded scholarships that allowed socially disadvantaged yet talented young Georgians to take advantage of the unique opportunity to obtain a U.S. bachelor’s in science degree from San Diego State University here in Georgia.
And USAID’s investment of $148 million during my three years in Tbilisi in the areas of education, judicial reform, support to elections and political processes, promoting good governance, and expansion of the agricultural sector have led to advances across the economic and political spectrum.
We have invested in your health. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention facilitated a multi-billion dollar partnership between Gilead Sciences and the Georgian government to provide free, life-saving hepatitis C treatment to every Georgian citizen infected with HCV.
We continue to invest in your judicial sector. Through exchanges and partnerships with U.S. Federal and State agencies, we brought modern law enforcement and justice sector standards to Georgia to combat transnational organized crime and strengthen judicial capacity and independence. We are actively involved in helping the government stand up a new commercial chamber to improve judicial capacity and performance with respect to business disputes.
We are committed security partners. With your dedication and our support, Georgia has exceeded NATO’s own goal of spending two percent of gross domestic product on defense and improved its territorial defense capability. Georgian and U.S. forces continue to serve side-by-side in Afghanistan as part of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission. It weighs heavily on me whenever a Georgian soldier is injured or killed fighting in defense of shared values and interests, and I would like to take this opportunity to recognize the sacrifices your country has made in support of these missions. One strong signal of our bilateral security partnership was Georgia’s decision to procure the Javelin anti-tank missile system and two U.S. 110 foot patrol boats.
I must also commend the Ministry of Defense for its recent decision to undertake its next series of reforms, including changes in the relationships between civilian and uniformed leadership as well as a broad reorganization of forces. These improvements will make your forces more agile, responsive, and effective. These changes have our support and we will assist you to bring them to conclusion.
But as I prepare to finish my time as Ambassador, I find myself thinking less about what we have accomplished, and more about unfinished business and what still needs to be done. President Reagan once said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.” And this is also the case for Georgia. So while Georgia’s Western path has deepened over my time here, we still need to anchor Georgia in the West and make its trajectory truly irreversible.
We have worked together on many efforts to achieve this goal. There is our commitment to Georgia’s aspiration to NATO membership and our firm support for Georgia’s territorial integrity, including our participation in the Geneva International Discussions. There are our continued foreign assistance programs, and our efforts to attract U.S. investment to develop Georgia’s economy. There are our exchanges – we have sent over 5,000 Georgians to the United States on exchanges ranging from entrepreneurship to environmental preservation to political inclusion. In fact, many of you in this room have had that opportunity. Other partners such as the EU and its member states share these goals for Georgia.
But all of these ambitious plans will be for naught if Georgia gets one thing wrong. Georgia must cement its democratic transition by ensuring that election outcomes reflect the will of the voters, by encouraging investment and economic growth, by strengthening its democratic institutions, and by fostering the rule of law and respect for human rights. While Georgia remains very much on the right track, there are still some issues of concern.
The dominance of the ruling party at all levels of government risks creating an uneven democratic playing field. While OSCE/ODIHR termed the 2017 local elections as generally respecting fundamental freedoms and reported candidates were able to campaign freely, they also noted the atmosphere of the elections was shaped by the dominance of the ruling party, including an increase in cases of candidate and voter intimidation.
Upcoming 2018 and 2020 elections will be further tests for political pluralism. There are several key steps that can be taken to ensure a process that meets the highest standards and ensures a level playing field.
First, we would like to see Georgia harmonize its electoral laws with international standards and move to a fully proportional system in 2024, taking into account OSCE and international observer recommendations.
Second, the conduct of free and fair elections requires that the Central Election Commission operate as a fully independent and trustworthy institution that stands above politics and applies both the spirit and the letter of the law.
Third, we believe Georgia’s democratic development depends on a pluralistic political environment where all parties compete on the same level. Qualified parties need better access to campaign financing and increased free air time, especially for independent candidates. A system where one party receives over 90 percent of all campaign donations risks embedding a one-party monopoly on power.
Fourth, citizens can only express their will at the ballot box if they are free from any pressure or intimidation. The principle of one-person/one-vote is fundamental to the development of democracy.
Another issue that concerns me is the need for strong institutions and democratic checks and balances.
There have been several cases in recent memory where U.S. companies have complained to me that they are not being treated fairly in the courts. An impartial court system, free from outside influence, is central to attracting the foreign investment Georgia badly needs to develop its economic potential.
It’s also imperative that people have faith in Georgia’s system of justice and know that it upholds their rights not only in rhetoric, but in reality. The justice system should not be used as a weapon of executive power, against opponents or to stifle free speech. It is incumbent on the party in power to show restraint, not to abuse its position, and to help society heal and stop relitigating the wrongs of the past.
Georgia must cultivate and protect a free, pluralistic press. Thomas Jefferson said that “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” His point is clear – there is no democracy without free media. There can be no tolerance for intimidating the media or otherwise attempting to silence alternative points of view. No one should infringe on the people’s right to know, and hold their elected leaders accountable.
If the government has a role in media affairs, it’s to develop strong, strategic communications. Georgian leaders do recognize the need to convey clearly and consistently to the population the economic and political advantages of joining the Western community of values. Your destiny is with the West. I could see that even in 1976. Your spirit of independence and your tolerance of new or different ideas set you apart, and showed me that your future path lay westward.
Lastly, Georgia’s system of checks and balances can only work if the legislature becomes be a fully empowered institution, taking on more oversight responsibilities of the executive branch – especially the security services. Georgia’s Parliament is the direct representation of its people, and yet it often lacks the resources and authorities to watch over a more powerful government bureaucracy.
To irreversibly anchor Georgia in the West, we must partner together to cement a pluralistic democratic system. I have met countless Georgians in civil society, political parties, government ministries, and elsewhere who are fully committed to advancing these goals.
You will succeed in your aspirations. I have faith in Georgia and Georgians. You may be surrounded by security challenges, and beset by voices from inside and outside trying to undermine democracy, but you have the right environment for democracy and freedom to develop: vibrant civil society, freedom of expression and assembly, and, most importantly, political will to reform. Here in Georgia, the seeds you sow for democracy do not fall on stony ground, but on fertile soil.
The path before you is hard, and may be long, but you’re not alone. When Vice President Pence was here on August 1, 2017, he said four very important words: “We are with you.” After my departure, Deputy Chief of Mission Elizabeth Rood and my eventual successor will lead our mission as we continue to stand with you and lend assistance in these efforts. As Georgia continues on this course, future U.S. Ambassadors will have the opportunity to call Georgia not only our partner, but also our ally.