Senior State Department Officials Briefing to Traveling Press

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Good morning.  I don’t know how much any of you know about Georgia, but I’ll just start by saying it’s a young democracy, basically 20 years.  The ’90s were really a lost decade of lawlessness, so they’ve been working on their democracy for 20 years.  The United States has been helping them, but they still are in the process of building independent institutions, and I think that’s what we saw with these elections.  They are – they’ve had flawed elections pretty much for the last 30 years and we saw similar types of violations this election as well: vote buying, voter intimidation, the abuse of administrative resources in terms of bringing civil servants out to vote.

What was unusual about this year also was COVID.  There weren’t the usual large groups of short-term observers.  There were some long-term observers and some short-term observers from OSCE, but not as many, and of course the U.S. mission and other embassies also sent out our unofficial, informal teams.

So many assessed, as did OSCE, that these were competitive elections, better in some ways – less hate speech, less of some of the more aggressive tactics before the elections – but – and that respected fundamental freedoms in terms of freedom of expression and those sorts of things, but that they too observed violations like the vote buying and the voter intimidation that unfortunately have plagued Georgia’s elections for 30 years.  Our team saw that too.  Our statement from the embassy reflected that.

What we have been encouraging the opposition to do is to pursue its claims of violations through the legal process that Georgia has built over the last 20 years.  Unfortunately, they don’t have – many people in Georgia don’t have a lot of confidence in the judicial system, in the central election commission.  These are all, again, the institutions that are in the process of developing, and so while they did pursue them, they did not have a lot of confidence that they were going to really get the kind of review that they thought was needed, the kind of scrutiny of their claims, and so pretty much the day after the election they were calling for new elections.

What gave many of us pause is the results, the tabulations were not that far off.  The official results were very within, in some cases, percentage points of the PVTs that were done by the local observers.  And so it wasn’t immediately clear that these were sort of fatally flawed elections.  How much worse than previous ones that had not been challenged with calls for new elections?  And again, we were encouraging everybody:  Use the legal processes you built over the years to adjudicate these claims.  Recounts, things like that were not handled as – let’s say as transparently as they should have been by the Central Election Commission, which added to the sense of suspicion about to whether the results were credible or not.

The EU ambassador and I have been hosting a series of meetings with all the parties, but several of them with all the parties together to try and see if they can negotiate a solution to the impasse, because what we are encouraging is the opposition to fight this – fight for change within the parliament, don’t boycott again, because they have – their sort of reflex is to take it to the streets and boycott.  And we’ve been encouraging them to fight for change within.  You’ve been elected by your supporters to go into the parliament and make change.

That’s what happened last summer, when they did these constitutional changes that resulted in a more proportional electoral system.  And that electoral system, that new system, actually worked.  They have a more diverse parliament than they’ve ever had before with nine parties that represent much more diverse perspectives and views, more women as a result of electoral change.  And some of the problems that we saw this election can be – should have been – included in electoral reform that was done during the summer.  The opposition was boycotting parliament, so that electoral reform was not as strong and forceful as it might have been had they been part of the process of change within the parliament.

So to see them calling for a boycott again is like watching the same movie again.  We’re encouraging them to go into parliament, do electoral change that’s meaningful so that the next elections will be better and we won’t see – they won’t see – this same repeat of the same kinds of violations.  And that’s what our – the U.S. and the European Union ambassadors are trying to support: bringing them to the table not for us to find the solution, but for them to find the solution, work together, learn how to work together – because they’re going to have to work together in parliament – and tee up a program, a legislative agenda that includes meaningful electoral change, meaningful reform of the Central Election Commission administration.  And then if there are – when there are new elections, you will have a more credible result that everybody can have confidence in and there won’t be these kinds of questions.

That goes to the reason for the Secretary’s meeting with civil society on judicial reform, because fundamentally, if there were a truly independent judiciary here, those electoral claims that were made could have been resolved in a court and people would have had confidence in the outcome.  Right now, they go through a Central Election Commission and then they could be taken to court.  Some of them were taken to court.  But because some in the opposition don’t have confidence in the adjudication process, whether it’s CEC or the courts, they feel stuck.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Maybe I’d add, going back up to a more 30,000-foot level, Georgia in its relatively short history of regaining independence after the breakup of the Soviet Union has had a very Western perspective and they’ve been a very strong partner with us.  And working together with the EU, they have underscored their desire for further integration into Euro-Atlantic structures.  They’ve been a great partner in terms of security, militarily, and so what the Secretary wants to underscore is support for Georgia’s sovereignty.  And of course you have to remember that there is 20 percent of the country occupied by Russians here.  They continue to push back against that element of instability created by Moscow.

But they’ve been very strong partners, and the Secretary wants to underscore support, stick with it with the institutions that you’ve created, exactly as my colleague has said – make them more perfect over time, and that’s the real message here and why he came to see those representatives of the state – the president, the prime minister, foreign minister.  He’s also going to see the patriarch, playing off of the themes in Istanbul yesterday with that, and then this roundtable with civil society.

He’s leaving behind a senior colleague who will then meet also with opposition figures, with NGOs who were involved in the election process, underscoring again that kind of support from the West and the Euro-Atlantic community in helping them develop these institutions, and again, the message being: use the institutions.  Don’t just boycott them and achieve your gains that way.  And then also see businesspeople, because part of the message here too is to increase confidence and create a business environment that attracts foreign investment vitally needed in a part of the world with great potential for trade, for investment, but also a tough neighborhood.

And if you also add in the current situation in other parts of the Caucasus, you’ll see that Georgia, just as we have, has welcomed the ceasefire, the peace in Nagorno-Karabakh now, but also looks anxiously at how that resolves itself.  Again, they are – we’re looking at using the institutions and structures that we have through the OSCE process.  So that gives you a snapshot of basically a half day for the Secretary and then continued engagement throughout the rest of the day for others.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Yes.  And if it – to round it out, as [Senior State Department Official Two] was saying, this is a country that has throughout the centuries played a fairly neutral role in a very difficult neighborhood where there’s a lot of traffic.  They see themselves as a gateway, as a bridge between Central Asia and Europe.  Their orientation is to Europe.  That is their aspiration, to become part of the European Union, to become part of NATO, and I think recent events have only strengthened that conviction besides a cultural feeling that that is where Georgia belongs is with Europe.  And the idea now that there are Russian troops here, in Armenia by choice, and in Nagorno-Karabakh now as peacekeepers adds to this dimension that is not unfamiliar to Georgia over the centuries but I think also makes them more steadfast in demonstrating that they are a successful, aspiring, Western-oriented democracy that belongs in the family of European nations.

MODERATOR:  Take a couple questions.  We’ve got to get Number One out of here in just a couple minutes.  Nick and then Adam.

QUESTION:  Nick Wadhams with Bloomberg.  Do you have any concern that given the ruling party’s – well, I’ll just say that Georgia may be increasingly falling under the sway of Russia, that you talk about its openness to Europe and NATO or its desire to join NATO, but it may be moving closer into the Russian orbit?

And then second, why did the Secretary decide in coming, given the somewhat volatile situation, not to meet with opposition leaders?  Is there any concern that his visit here sort of tips the scales toward the government and signifies that the opposition’s concerns don’t hold merit as compared to the government’s winning the election?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  I think the election results, to your first question, demonstrate how clearly the population of Georgia rejects that association with Russia.  The fact is Russia is their neighbor and always will be their neighbor.  But as [Senior State Department Official Two] said, Russia occupies 20 percent of this country.  This is not a way to engender goodwill, and many people still remember with great pain the 2008 war.  So I would say there’s a reality, there’s a pragmatism about Russia’s being Georgia’s neighbor, but their orientation is to the West, to European Union —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  They’re going to drag you away (inaudible).

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Okay.  And on —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  We can keep chatting (inaudible).

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  All right, thank you.  Excuse me.  I’m sorry.  Thank you.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible.)

QUESTION:  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Just to finish on that, again, we’re here to demonstrate our longstanding support for Georgia, its sovereignty, its independence, its future, its potential, and the strong U.S.-Georgia partnership, which has been enduring through many different governments, different parties, and different U.S. administrations.  We looked at – Secretary’s been eager to come and underscore that and those ties, whether it’s in terms of security and the strong role Georgia has played over many years in working with us in some of the great security challenges, whether it was Iraq or continuing in Afghanistan.  They’re the largest per capita contributor to the Resolute Support mission and our ongoing partnership in that, and I think he’s calibrated his engagements to demonstrate a support not in a political sense but simply for institutions, for government, for Georgia diplomatically and as a partner and lets his broader team engage the full spectrum.

So you’ve got him talking to the civil society who, as you’ve already heard, is so key to building the institutions, and that’s the message here is: use the institutions you’ve created.  You’ve actually got a pretty good system, and as you heard, since I was last here about 14 months ago they took these measures.  Lots of hand-wringing over it, but they actually accomplished that, took these measures which helped.  You can see this improvement, continuity in the process, and the strong turnout even in the time of COVID demonstrates the people’s desire to do that.

So we’ll have a chance, further chance to hear from the opposition, but I think the message will be the same.  It’s – the broad one the Secretary is giving is: use your institutions, continue to build your state, your society, focusing on how to increase your security but also your economic prosperity by using – by undertaking the reforms that we’ve been encouraging through our assistance and other Western support.

MODERATOR:  Adam.

QUESTION:  Yeah.  I think Nick captured it perfectly, but I’ll push if I can on both of those.  I did speak to some of the opposition leaders yesterday, and I think putting it mildly to say they were extremely disappointed to not have time.  So I was kind of hoping you can go a little bit further with that, with what – I mean, I guess if you’re staying, you’ll talk to them about and how you might kind of pacify their concerns.  I think they’ve seen the Secretary as very much a champion for what they’re fighting for here, so it was problematic in their eyes.

The second one – also a bit of a follow on Nick’s – is the backsliding.  I think, again, the opposition would very much say that they’ve seen a significant erosion of the pro-Western, pro-Europe values under the current government.  What’s your view on it?  Is it backsliding?  Is that fair, determined that —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Starting with the last, that’s – those are determinations that they have to make.  It’s their country.  It’s their democracy.  It’s their institutions.  It’s their public perception and will, and you can see various interpretations of that, and obviously talking to opposition figures you’re going to get a particular thing, and that’s why we do engage with them.  I mean, the embassy – the ambassador – along with other partners from the EU in particular have been engaging almost daily in that – again, the underlying message being use the institutions.  Young democracies aren’t often used to that concept that you use the institutions to create change.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Exactly, and that’s the message, and that’s what the Secretary is delivering broadly too.  Rather than delving into – we’re not going to have the Secretary of State get pulled into the domestic political disputes and turmoil, but rather to deliver a broader message, and I think we’ve calibrated that right.  The fact that you hear oh, we’re disappointed we don’t have separate meetings – well, you could – we could stay here a week and have lots of separate meetings.  Instead let’s deliver a message that is support for this country, its institutions, its citizens, our partnership, and their future in a transatlantic, Euro-Atlantic concept in the West.  And that’s I think what we’ll be saying: resolve disputes, strengthening the election process rather than rejecting it.

MODERATOR:  (Inaudible.)  Alex.

QUESTION:  Yes.  Alex Rego with FOX (inaudible).

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Yeah, Alex, how are you?

QUESTION:  Hi, good to see you again.  I was just wondering, tangential but I believe to be related – and apologies if I missed something – if the department has a response to the open letter that the security and foreign policy community sent to the Secretary requesting a permanent U.S. military presence here.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  I’m not sure I saw that.

QUESTION:  Okay.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  That one – I’d have to double-check.  We have a strong —

QUESTION:  They sent it on – let’s see.  It was earlier this week, I believe.  Oh, it was yesterday.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  There you go.  We were traveling yesterday, as you may recall.

QUESTION:  Understood.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  So we can look into that.  We get lots of communication.

QUESTION:  In general on the topic of a permanent presence?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  I think I saw a general – look, as I said, we have a – Georgia, we stand for their sovereignty, their independence.  They’re not happy to have Russian troops present and occupying 20 percent of their country, and we stand by them in their desire to see that change.  We support and participate in the Geneva process, which is designed to get – to use institutions to work on that.

But our broader security cooperation is very robust as a partner.  As I said, if you look back over the last even 20 years, Georgia’s been a strong supporter and participant in some of the major security efforts, whether it was Iraq or continuing in Afghanistan.  So we’re always looking at ways to strengthen and use that, and we believe for Georgia their strengthening their own institutions, their democracy is important as well.  So that’s the broader message.

QUESTION:  And do you believe the military presence has a role in that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Which military presence?

QUESTION:  U.S. military presence here in Georgia.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  We don’t have a U.S. military presence in —

QUESTION:  But they’re requesting it.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  That’s something that they can continue to discuss.

QUESTION:  Okay.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  You get lots of letters in diplomacy – lots of letters, lots of articles, lots of commentary, lots of media engagement.  We value Georgia as a strong partner and we’re not addressing – again, I haven’t even seen that, so I just can’t address the specifics of what they’re discussing.

MODERATOR:  Francesco.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  You mentioned and the ambassador mentioned the ceasefire agreement in Nagorno-Karabakh that will send Russian peacekeepers in the neighborhood.  How much do you perceive – you, the U.S., and not the Georgians – this new situation as a threat or a change, a risk of change on the stability, the balances in this region, having Russia sending those troops?  Is it a real risk or is it a perceived —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Well, I know we discussed this a bit in France, obviously, as well.  Certainly we discussed it in the meetings with French officials, and you’ll have seen the statement welcoming the end of active hostilities and the violence that was really quite severe for several weeks.  Now we have a ceasefire that’s held for at least a full week now.

The details of that we still don’t know exactly what agreement that the Russians have worked out, and that’s something we’re engaging on.  We are dedicated – as are the French – to the Minsk co-chair group and process and expect our representatives in that process to meet this week, I think.

QUESTION:  Today.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Is it even today?  And so we’ll continue to get more focus on that.  But certainly, as you know, we had all worked together – all three co-chairs – to try to bring about a ceasefire.  And so I think there was a statement yesterday —

QUESTION:  Yeah, from the Secretary.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  — put out on that that also discussed the support, humanitarian support that we were providing in the region.

QUESTION:  But the fact that there are Russian peacekeepers just behind the border here, is it a risk for Georgia?  Do you perceive it as a threat, or is – for the balances in —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Well, as you know, Russians are just down the road occupying 20 percent of Georgia, and the Georgians don’t like that and we support them in their desire for a return of their full sovereignty.

(Chit-chat.)

QUESTION:  [Senior State Department Official Two], do you have any thoughts on Turkey sending peacekeepers into Nagorno-Karabakh?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  It’s very unclear – we’ve never broadly supported – the Minsk process always agreed that the Minsk co-chairs should not be involved in that, and it’s unclear if you look at what the Russians say what Turkey’s role is in the agreement that was reached a week ago.  So that we wait and see.  It is very interesting to see Putin essentially saying no, there are no Turks there, and the Turks have been very unhappy about that.  Certainly bringing in foreign fighters from other regions is not considered a sign for stability (inaudible).

QUESTION:  Okay.