Ambassador Robin Dunnigan's Interview with RFE/RL
Recorded on November 14, 2023
RFE/RL: Ambassador Dunnigan. So nice to meet you here in Georgia. We’ve been following your testimony as a candidate for Ambassador, and then I am following your meetings you hold in Georgia. I would like to start with the issue of occupation, killing of another citizen of Georgia, Tamaz Ginturi, and kidnapping a person accompanying him. That’s the last incident, tragic incident, linked to the occupation of Georgia by Russia. And brother of Tamaz Ginturi says that he knows who have committed the crime, but I’m afraid he also knows that those people would not be reached by the prosecution. That’s how it happened in previous cases too. So far, that’s the real face of Russian occupation. What is your say on that incident?
Ambassador Dunnigan: Thank you Nino for having me, and I think you’re right to start with such a serious subject. First, I would like to offer the United States’ deepest condolences to the family and the friends and the loved ones, really to all Georgians, for the loss of your citizen at the hands of Russian forces. We have said for decades that Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are a top priority for the United States, and we call again on Russia, on President Putin to meet the commitments that they made under the 2008 ceasefire agreement that includes pulling back to pre-conflict positions, allowing humanitarian access, not further hardening and making more dangerous the Administrative
Border [Boundary] Line. I think this is another example of Putin not meeting his commitments. And I think, it’s a real example of what you said is right, the human face, the human suffering that happens when you have occupied territories. It will continue to be a priority of mine as Ambassador.
RFE/RL: The main issue is why doesn’t Russia fulfill its commitments, and here comes the ability of a country like Georgia to defend itself and the NATO integration is very important part of it. But first, I would like to refer to the events, very important one of the last weeks when the European Commission gave a positive recommendation for Georgia being a candidate country, and the final decision is still to be made. You were taking part in the ceremony near the presidential palace and also we saw the Embassy’s announcement – “Congratulations that today’s recommendation is a tremendous step forward for Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration” – which includes itself NATO integration too, where we do not see much of dynamics in recent years. What would you say about the process and what would give impetus more strength to it? What’s Georgia’s part and what’s the Alliance’s part?
Ambassador Dunnigan: First again, congratulations to Georgia, to all Georgians, to the government, the president, political leadership, opposition parties. I think it really was a tremendous achievement, and all Georgians deserve the credit, and I’m very optimistic and hopeful that the vote in mid-December will be positive. Ultimately, it’s a Council’s decision, but I hope it’s positive and it is an important step forward in integration with the EU. I think, it’s also an important step forward regarding Georgia’s NATO aspirations.
The United States strongly supports Georgia’s NATO aspirations, and we have worked for decades with the Georgian Defense Forces and Coast Guard to make Georgian forces more interoperable with NATO. They own NATO interoperable weapons as a result of our assistance. Our soldiers, U.S. soldiers fight next to, standing side-by-side, they train with, they exercise with Georgian forces. And I raise all of that because I think that has been a tremendous effort to help strengthen the Georgian Defense Forces and start on the military interoperability part that’s required for NATO aspirants.
There’s also a political path. NATO is a political and a military alliance, and I think the EU integration will help with the political steps that are needed. I will continue to support these efforts while I’m here. I’ve already been to Brussels and spoken to our Ambassador, Permanent Representative to NATO. I’ve spoken with the NATO liaison office here and with our defense team at the Embassy. We all help hope to continue to support Georgia on this path.
RFE/RL: We didn’t hear much news from the Vilnius summit. It was said that the leaders reiterate the decisions made at the 2008 Bucharest Summit that Georgia will become a member of the alliance with a membership action plan as an integral part of the process and we reaffirm all elements of that decision. So, what could be done from the Georgian side? What’s George’s job to make this process dynamic? Because when we talk about European integration, we and our partners say that it’s a window of an opportunity. What should be done to make NATO’s open door, a window of opportunity?
Ambassador Dunnigan: I think that’s an excellent way to frame it. Particularly with the EU recommendation, I think, it is a real window of opportunity. That recommendation for Georgia was merit based, but there is also a moment of real energy within the European Union on enlargement and I really encourage the government and the opposition to take advantage of this moment and be unified and get done what they need to get done. I say that because that’s relevant for NATO too. For making steps forward in all aspects of the Alliance, including the political aspects, we will need, NATO members will need to see Georgian government that is more and more Westward looking, integrated with the west, taking political steps that strengthen the democracy and again, that will require unity and it will go, it will be the sort of process that will go hand in hand with EU integration.
RFE/RL: The best test for that will be elections in 2024. The Georgian political elite, not only society in general, is very sensitive towards the election issue. We saw that several times, I mean, what the partners say about the election and about your small comment in the Senate when answering the questions of Senators. But my question is, what would be in focus while monitoring pre-election period in Georgia while long-term election monitoring process. Election year is here, we are in the process already, and we can feel that everywhere. So what are the criteria, the main issues for those elections to prove that they are they’re fair, competitive, and free?
Ambassador Dunnigan: You know, already that that is one of the EC’s specific recommendations.
RFE/RL: Exactly. They call it nine steps. Now we have steps.
Ambassador Dunnigan: In those steps one of them is that next year be free, fair, transparent process in advance of the 2024 elections, and that doesn’t just mean on election day, I think everybody knows that, that means all of the months leading up to an election. And I think that Georgian citizens are right to be paying attention to this. It is the single most important thing in a democracy that a citizen has his or her voice heard, and they know their voice will be counted fairly and they will be able to choose the government that they want.
The United States will also be involved in this process. We already are. We work very closely with the Central Election Commission through our assistance programs; we will be working with international partners that are conducting the short-term and long-term election observation missions. I’ve already spoken to our ambassador to the OSCE, and he has told me, Michael Carpenter, that OSCE is already focused on this and ODIHR is already focused on this. So, I think, the international partners, the European Council, ODIHR, and OSCE, they’re already focused on working with Georgians, the Georgian government, all parties in Georgia to ensure the elections are free and fair. It’s essential
RFE/RL: Will there be more resources involved? I mean, human resources from the partners side in monitoring.
Ambassador Dunnigan: I don’t know exactly, but I know that all of the partners I’ve spoken with think this is a priority.
RFE/RL: Until Georgia becomes part of NATO. I mean, full membership. It’s very important to hear and follow the activities, discussions about Black Sea Security, which is going on involving Georgia’s Western partners and first of all, the U.S.. And very recently there was a discussion again in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about State Department’s Black Sea Strategy and we know, I have to name the champion of this Black Sea Strategy issue advocating Senator Shaheen and very interesting discussion itself. But my question is, what could Georgia gain in terms of advancing its defense and security capabilities in the framework of this strategy, if this is approved by the Congress later, quite soon I guess.
Ambassador Dunnigan: I also have to recognize Senator Shaheen and Senator Romney, they’ve both been real leaders on Black Sea Security strategy. And in fact, in my previous position before, I was lucky enough to arrive here as Ambassador, I actually worked on that strategy that we presented to our Congress. What the strategy really does is it recognizes that with Putin’s brutal further invasion of Ukraine, we have seen just how vulnerable and critical the Black Sea region is. And what we want to do is work more closely with our allies and partners in the region, including Georgia to ensure there is better security coordination among the Black Sea partners and allies, better economic cooperation, better energy security cooperation, better democratic, political discussions. Why? Because we believe that will make the Black Sea more resilient and our Black Sea partners stronger in the face of future aggression. I think, the strategy really aims to build on some cooperation that’s already happening, but we hope to deepen it. And we are already doing some of that with the Georgian Defense Forces and Coast Guard in a way I think that is beneficial for both our military and Georgian forces.
RFE/RL: When we talk about Black Sea security we go back again to the occupation issue. We know the initiative of Kremlin to bring part of its fleet, to the Georgian part of Ochamchire, which is occupied territory. And then we go back to the Anaklia port perspective. Anaklia itself is a great example of something when you miss the momentum because it might be built sometime in the future, but the circumstances will be different. Now it seems more difficult, and we know involvement of an interest from China also. Does the position of the State Department remain the same towards Anaklia port. We remember Mike Pompeo’s comments and we know later positions too.
Ambassador Dunnigan: So, rather than speak about past positions and past comments, let me talk about now and looking into the future. First on the reports that Russia claims to establish a permanent naval base off the coast of Abkhazia. Again, this is an example of Putin blatantly disregarding Russia’s own commitments, and that if that’s true, that would be a violation of commitments under the 2008 Ceasefire Agreement, and I think another example of Putin and the Kremlin contributing to insecurity in this region.
On Anaklia, further developing the port would be an important element of Georgia’s serious efforts to develop itself as a Middle Corridor, important link in the Middle Corridor, which is more important now than ever. Who the government chooses to develop that port is ultimately a sovereign decision of the government. We would just encourage Georgia, as we encourage all countries when looking at critical infrastructure, including a port, but all critical infrastructure, you really need to know who you’re working with and what their long-term intentions are. And you need to ensure, a country needs to ensure that that process is as transparent as possible, and I think with critical infrastructure like ports, it’s extremely important.
RFE/RL: As I have already mentioned China, there is a development between China and Georgia – this bilateral declaration announcement on a strategic partnership between two countries. What’s the U.S. position of that development?
Ambassador Dunnigan: I have to be honest, when I say that we respect Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, we mean it. We respect Georgia’s sovereignty and it’s a sovereign decision who to trade with, who to sign agreements with. But again, I want to reiterate that having in place really strong mechanisms to ensure that investment decisions and trade decisions that are being made are as transparent and clear as possible, and that it is understood what the long-term implications are.
In terms of the strategic partnership, I’m just observing that in that agreement Georgia explicitly recognizes China’s sovereignty, but we don’t see that same commitment from China to Georgia. And this is a country that is getting increasingly closer to Russia, China is, and Russia is an occupier of parts of Georgia. So, I’m just observing that that is a bit of a fraught situation.
RFE/RL: When U.S. government sanctions Georgian citizens what do you expect from the Georgian government? What kind of behavior towards those people? Like judges we know, like former Prosecutor General who was named as Anzorovich, in a Russian style in the list, because he was named in the list of Russian citizens there, too. We know what happens and how it is implemented in the U.S. by the U.S, but what are your expectations?
Ambassador Dunnigan: So, our sanctions, depending on what kind they are, have different objectives: some of our sanctions are meant to promote accountability and fight corruption, some sanctions, in the case of our Russia sanctions, are meant to stop Russia from some malign activities they do for the benefit of the Russia Federation, and also stop fueling the war machine that Russia is using to commit its aggression, not only in Ukraine, but elsewhere. When we do those sanctions, we not only do we expect countries to respect them, but in the case of those citizens are part of that country, that that is useful information for governments as they look at their own investigations of potential corruption or in the case of Partskhaladze, a potential very close interaction with the FSB. And so, we encourage governments in all cases to use our sanctions as a kind of hint of where you could do some further investigation.
RFE/RL: As far as he was very high ranking official in the past, do you have bigger questions towards Georgian authorities? I mean the case with the former prosecutor general of the country who now became an instrument for the FSB, according to the Department of State
Ambassador Dunnigan: That sanction was very specific to him. And I don’t want to say that it reflects on any other officials. It was specific to Otar Partskhaladze.
RFE/RL: The case when Security Service of Georgia proceeds investigation on the revolutionary scenario aiming a coup, and the USAID involvement in it, you know, we call it – a case of trainings. It’s against certain NGOs and project, and the USAID is one of the supporters of the project, and it is named also by the State Security Service. If it is true, if we look at it seriously, did they have a communication with the USAID, with the U.S. Embassy on that issue
Ambassador Dunnigan: If I understand your question correctly, I want to start with the premise, which is so ridiculous, I hope I have to waste very little time talking about it in the future. Not the premise you’re making, the premise that others have said that USAID is involved in this. There is no country that has been a greater supporter of Georgia and Georgia’s democratic development than the United States over the last 31 plus years. We have given over $6 billion in assistance. We have worked with health clinics, schools, teachers, doctors, the military, every segment of society to help this country become stronger, more economically prosperous, and I think really helped Georgia get to where it is today. And so to say that there is this subplot where United States government and an agency of the United States government is trying to commit those sort of activities here is just so ridiculous that I really don’t think it’ll be worth my time to talk about it much in the future. What I will say is that USAID, myself, we represent the policies and the programs that the President of the United States, the Secretary of State, and the USAID Administrator, Samantha Power – all of our government – support here in Georgia. And for us, it doesn’t matter who is in power in the government, as long as that government was elected freely and fairly in a transparent matter.
RFE/RL: Have you heard of a global party of war or global war party or something, this kind of rhetoric?
Ambassador Dunnigan: Again, I would say that is ridiculous. The United States has worked hand in hand with our European partners and allies and our partners and allies in the G7, in fact, to do the opposite, to try to maintain peace in this region, including in Ukraine. We have worked, I just covered Ukraine for two years and we worked day and night to try to ensure there’s peace, not to expand the war. So this narrative is just, you really have to question where the narrative comes from. And in my view, it comes from those that benefit from such a narrative, which is probably outside of Georgia, but then unfortunately it gets amplified here. And who benefits? Certainly not Georgians because that is not what the U.S. is trying to do.
RFE/RL: You have numerous meetings since you are here. Are you interested in meeting with Bidzina Ivanishvili? His name was mentioned in the Senate hearing
Ambassador Dunnigan: What I’m trying to do is meet a broad spectrum of Georgians, you know, meeting with the government, first government officials, but also I’m starting to meet with party leaders, meeting with civil society organizations. I’m also trying to get out of Tbilisi and meet with Georgians who are just working and they’re smaller, medium businesses, farmers. I’ve tried to meet with several farmers. I really want to get to know Georgia. And, I don’t have any new meetings to preview with anybody. But what I’m really trying to do is do what we’ve been doing for 31 years here, which is building ties between United States and Georgia. And that really starts with people-to-people ties.
RFE/RL: Thank you very much. Thank you for your time
Ambassador Dunnigan: Thank you.