Ned Price on Foreign Agents Law
QUESTION: Thank you. Ned, what are you learning about the ongoing protest in Georgia over a draft law on so-called foreign agents that the ruling party – Georgian Dream – initiated and adopted, actually, a few hours ago at the first hearing in the Parliament of Georgia? So the initiator of this law, they are arguing that this is similar to U.S. law FARA. So what do you think this leaves the 30-plus years of building democracy in Georgia by the U.S.?
MR PRICE: Well, this is something that we’ve spoken to over the past couple days. We have expressed our consistent concern about this. The law is still going through the process within the Georgian system. But nevertheless, we remain deeply troubled by the introduced foreign agents law, precisely because it would stigmatize and silence independent voices and citizens of Georgia who are dedicated to building a better country for their fellow citizens, for their communities. We are deeply concerned about the potential implications of this law for freedom of speech and democracy in Georgia.
Our point has been a simple one, and we’ve made this point in public but we’ve also conveyed it in private. Anyone voting for this draft legislation would be responsible for potentially jeopardizing Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic future. A law like this is not consistent with the aspirations that the Georgian people have expressed over the course of decades now, the future they have set out for themselves, and the future that we, as the United States, are determined to continue to be a partner to help them achieve.
It’s not just the United States expressing these reservations. Several other partner countries, the EU, the UN, and Georgian civil society groups have also issued strong statements of concern about this draft legislation.
Now, there has been a lot of propaganda about this law. You mentioned one of these untruths: the idea that this law was based on our Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. Our Foreign Agents Registration Act requires people who are agents of foreign governments to register as such. Our law does not affect NGO operations or funding sources. We can provide you with additional details on FARA if that would be of use. But FARA is very narrow; it is tailored to apply only to those agents of foreign government. This is something very different, and that’s why we’re quite concerned about it.
QUESTION: Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the Russia expert, Fiona Hill, the other day, at a Brookings Institute event, mentioned that U.S. attention to human rights record of Georgia and freedom of speech, et cetera, was not sufficient. How would you respond to that? Because for many years, especially in the past few years, Georgian civil society organizations, opposition leaders, and Western-oriented Georgians collectively, we are calling and urging the U.S. to impose sanctions against the oligarch Ivanishvili and his puppets in the government. And there is a growing concern that the state capture and the growing authoritarianism and oligarchies is just booming in Georgia.
So would you agree with Condoleezza Rice and Fiona Hill on that?
MR PRICE: What I would say – and this has been a project of successive administrations, and that’s why I think you are right to point to what Fiona Hill said, what former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said as well. This has been a project of the people of Georgia, but also a partnership with the United States of America since Georgia’s independence, going on decades now.
From the beginning we have stood in solidarity with our Georgian partners and, again, their own aspirations to be a free and sovereign country within its internationally recognized borders. We, of course – and you’re alluding to this – have heard damaging rhetoric from some who may be opposed to those Euro-Atlantic aspirations that the Georgian people have put forward. We’ve spoken to this law as well. When we have seen that, when we have heard that, we have used our voice publicly; we’ve also used our voice privately. Ambassador Degnan and the team in Tbilisi have been deeply engaged doing the work of this partnership with their Georgian counterparts, not only over the course of recent weeks, but over the course of some 30 years now, because over the course of some 30 years we have turned this partnership into a strategic one. It’s an important one for us. We wish to continue to work together towards that shared vision of Georgia fully integrated into the Euro-Atlantic family of nations and part of a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace.
Now obviously, there are many challenges to that, some within Georgia, some on the periphery of Georgia’s border. But this is a vision that we know will take political will, it will take hard work, it will take resources to help realize. The United States is ready to continue to be a partner, and we hope to continue to find partners in the Georgian Government.
QUESTION: If we can stay in the region, if you don’t mind. I’ll just – you mentioned those who are going to vote for this resolution, that they’re responsible. Can you be a little bit more precise, particularly when it comes to talking about the elephant in the room – my colleague mentioned Mr. Ivanishvili. Will the United States Government be willing to actually go after Ivanishvili and his party if they succeed in, let’s say, sucking the oxygen from Georgia’s democracy?
MR PRICE: Alex, our focus right now is making very clear where the United States stands. We want there to be no doubt about the concerns that we’ve expressed, the concerns that the EU has expressed, the UN has expressed, a number of countries around the world have expressed – and probably most importantly of all, the concerns that the Georgian Government should be hearing from civil society within their own country, from their own citizens. That’s our focus.
Of course, this passage of this law, implementation of this law would be a great concern for us. We’re not going to cross that bridge at this stage. It remains draft legislation that’s under discussion by Georgian lawmakers. That’s why we think at this stage the most important thing we can do is to leave no doubt about where we and the international community stands on this.
QUESTION: Staying in the region, I know I’ve asked this before, but yesterday was the first month of new Caucasus negotiator, who was just appointed to the region. Is it fair for us to expect his first trip anytime soon to the region?
MR PRICE: You can expect that, in fact. The Senior Advisor for Caucasus Negotiations Lewis Bono is traveling to the region next week on his first trip in this role. This is the first of what we will – what we expect will be regular travel to all three countries of the South Caucasus. Mr. Bono plans to meet with senior leaders to support the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace process and our sustained commitment to Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. As I mentioned before, he will visit all three South Caucasus countries as part of his visit. He’ll travel to Baku, to Yerevan, Tbilisi as well, in that order.
This, we believe, will be an opportunity for Mr. Bono to build on the meeting between Secretary Blinken, Armenia’s prime minister, and Azerbaijan’s president at the Munich Security Conference a couple of weeks ago now, in mid-February. We – as we said at the conclusion of that trilateral engagement, we are encouraged by recent efforts by Armenia and Azerbaijan to engage productively on the peace process. And Mr. Bono helps to – hopes to be in a position to build on that effort, and to see that progress continue. In all three of these cities, Mr. Bono will emphasize the United States is committed to promoting a peaceful, democratic, and prosperous future for the South Caucasus region.