On October 28, Georgians went to the polls to elect their fifth president. Runoff between the two top contenders – the ruling party-backed Salome Zurabishvili and the opposition candidate Grigol Vashadze – will be held later this month or early December.
Voice of America’s Ia Meurmishvili spoke about the presidential elections with George Kent, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Caucasus and Eastern Europe.
Georgia conducted historic elections past Sunday. The country will have the second round of presidential elections, which has never happened before. What are your assessments of the elections?
We rely first and foremost on the OSCE office for evaluation of the conduct of elections; they released their preliminary report and we endorse their conclusions that the election was conducted largely in accordance to international standards. Georgians clearly had a choice.
As you said, this is the first time elections went to a second round. And so there were a broad array of candidates and the two candidates, who had clearly the most support, went to the second round. Our expectations would be in that second round that the elections would again be conducted according to international standards and that the Georgian people’s right to choose free of interference will be upheld.
The government was jubilant and was anticipating a pretty strong victory which did not happen. Is there a message they should take from how the elections unfolded?
I do not think it is the role of the U.S. government to tell the Georgian government the lessons they should take from the voting of the Georgian people. Again our interest is that Georgia become a prosperous, secure, successful democracy and having elections on a regular basis is part of that democratic process. I think, the Georgian people had a chance to express their views and they will get another chance in the second round.
Do you have any concerns in the period leading up to the second round?
When I was in Georgia, I met with leading presidential candidates, I met with civil society, government officials and I did call for all Georgians to adopt a civil tone in engaging each other even in the heat of a political campaign. I think, languages and terms like “traitors” and “fascists” is not part of a reasoned discourse even in the passion of a political campaign. I think, candidates can compete on ideas, their vision for the future of Georgia and then the Georgian people will have another chance to express their views.
What is your impression of Georgia’s civil society? As you mentioned, you had multiple meetings with them when you were in Georgia.
I think, there are a lot of dedicated Georgians, who want to see a better future. In any country that has a mature society, the fabric of democracy, it is not just about elections. It is about being involved. And there are clearly Georgians who while not holding public office, want to be involved in the process of making the country more responsive and more successful. I think, members of the civil society have a critical role for the development of Georgia, and in general civil society can play a watchdog role both on those in office and I would say even those in the media to ensure that people in office and people in the media are sharing information with citizens to make informed decisions.
What do you think the media environment should be like in the period leading up to the runoff elections?
I think, the role of the media is to share information on critical issues for any society. I think, it is good to have a diversity of opinion. That means different types of media that show different perspectives, different forms of information. As I found out in Georgia, there is certainly a diversity of opinion. I think, getting that information out there and then letting the people have a chance to express their views.
One of the media outlets, Imedi TV, announced that they will be working in an emergency mode for the next month to ensure that the UNM “regime” does not return to power. Is this something to be concerned about?
I think, the media does play a role in informing citizens. Citizens have the right to expect professionalism from the media. In many countries media oftentimes tips its allegiances to certain philosophies or political parties and is part of understanding who owns media and who media is affiliated with.
Former President Mikheil Saakashvili did a Facebook live video for almost an hour. He took questions from people and spoke about the runoff elections as well as his views of the overall situation in the country. Do you think he is a factor in Georgian politics and is that something of any concern?
I do not follow him on Facebook so I did not watch his presentation. I believe there are two candidates that made it to the second round and I think, Georgian people have a choice between Salome [Zurabishvili] and [Grigol] Vashadze and that is really up to them to choose their next president.
What is your overall message to the people of Georgia as the country heads to the second round of the elections?
I think, that in every country elections can be heated discussions about the future of the country and about the personalities involved. What is most important is to remember this is part of a democratic process – electing leaders to be responsive to the needs of the people. And in the case of Georgia, going back to some of the language that is used there should be a reminder that this is a country where 20 percent of its territory is occupied. And so when people use words like “traitors” or “enemies” they should remember that the enemy is not Georgian.
What are your impressions of Georgia after having visited it very recently, including visiting the occupation line?
The U.S. stands with the Georgian people. We understand the impact of having 20 percent of the country occupied, the humanitarian impact on people’s lives who have been forced out of their homes. I visited a couple of villages that are literally divided by fences that the Russians have installed. We support Georgia’s recovery from conflict, which is now many years in the past, 10 years since the 2008 war with Russia. We want Georgia’s success economically, politically and democratically. We are a partner in security in the region, partner for economic development of Georgia and a partner for the success of Georgian democracy.
This material was prepared for Civil.ge by the Voice of America. In order to license this and other content free of charge, please contact Adam Gartner.