Letters Gone Unheeded: New Normal of U.S.-Georgia Relations? 

Georgia is often cited as one of the closest partners of the United States in the region. Last decades have seen the U.S. spearheading efforts to push forward the Georgian democracy. Clearly, Georgia’s relations with its major benefactor will loom large in this year’s political agenda. 

Civil Georgia tracks down recent strains in much-valued bilateral relations. 

The backstory 

Back in November 14, 2019, ruling Georgian Dream party MPs voted down a constitutional amendment that envisaged transition to fully proportional electoral system from 2020, triggering public protest in front of the parliament. Police dispersed the protestors in a heavy-handed mannerciting attempts to take over the parliament buildingThe U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi was quick to express disappointment with ruling party’s failure to “take an important step in advancing Georgia’s democratic development and strengthening trust among political parties.” Congressman Adam Kinzinger, who co-chairs House Georgia Caucus (a parliamentary friendship group in the lower Chamber), said he was “shocked” to hear about Georgian Dream’s backtracking from its promise.   

This is where it all started  

  • December 13: Adam Kinzinger (R) and Gery Connoly (D), co-chairs of the House Georgia Caucus, sent a letter to Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, decrying Georgian Dream’s shelving of the projected electoral reforms towards a fully proportional system. Strongly worded letter also touched on the alleged government-sanctioned violence, “employed” to quell ensuing protests.  

Follow-up letters 

  • December 19: in a written address, Senator Roger Wicker (R) criticized Georgian Dream’s bid to pack the top court with its loyal judges, exerting unwholesome influence on the judiciary. Senator also found fault with Bidzina Ivanishvili’s (chair of the Georgian Dream) remarks for threatening political opposition with “time in jail.” (Note: the letter was disclosed on January 25 by the United National Movement, an opposition party) 
  • January 13Congressman Markwayne Mullin (R), author of yet another letter, chose to add economic dimension to his criticism. Deploring “a continued negative trend in democratic and free-market indicators,” U.S. lawmaker singled out Frontera Resources (an oil and gas firm based in his home state Texas) for being subjected to “harassment and expropriation attack” by the Georgian government. Furthermore, Congressman pointed to Facebook’s announcement that accused Georgian Dream government of weaponizing an extensive network of social media accounts, aimed at muffling opposition views and advancing anti-Western sentiments.
  • January 21Kinzinger and Connolly penned a second letter signed by two other Congressmen – Eliot L. Engel and Michael McCaul (chair and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, respectively). The Congressmen expressed their alarm about “the politicization of the Anaklia Deep Sea project. Georgian Government had just cancelled a contract with a US-backed consortium, which was responsible for constructing the Anaklia deep-sea port. “This reflects an increasingly unfavorable business environment and could deter future U.S. investment in Georgia,” concluded the Congressmen.   
  • January 23Congressman Brian Babin (R) mainly reiterated Mullin’s concernsHe referred to Georgian government’s progressively antagonistic actions against democratic values, free-market principles and American interests. Georgia, Congressman Babin noted, for the first time in its modern history, had been cast in a negative and cautionary light with respect to appropriations from the U.S. government. 
  • January 29U.S. Senators Jim Risch (R), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Jeanne Shaheen (D), ranking member of the Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation, addressed major issues previously raised by other U.S. lawmakers, which indicated “a weakening of Georgian democracy and governance.” “Two of the most pressing matters are Parliament’s failure to uphold its commitment to electoral reform and the government’s violent suppression of peaceful protests”, Senators wrote.   
  • February 4: Congressman Randy Weber (R) cited “state capture” and “concentration of power in private hands” from Transparency International’s report to characterize political and business climate in Georgia. Weber voiced his support for passing Georgia Fair Business Practices Sanctions Act, which envisages sanctions against wrongdoer Georgian state officials.  

Who’s on the other end of the line? 

  • Reacting to December 14’s letter, Prime Minister Gakharia said he was receptive to “all criticism from friends and strategic partners.” However, Gakharia noted, the ruling party had misgivings about the substance of the criticism.  
  • Georgian Parliament Speaker Archil Talakvadze downplayed the criticism, stressing that the ruling party was guided “by the official positions of the U. government and the Department of State, in addition to the Congress.” 
  • Davit Bakradze, Georgia’s Ambassador in Washingtonpigeonholed Mullin’s appeal as an act of lobbyism, because, he said, Frontera had an ongoing legal dispute with the Georgian state. 
  • Foreign Minister Davit Zalkaliani assigned Congressmen’s sharp criticism to their lack of “comprehensive information about the political processes unfolding in Georgia.” Later Zalkaliani paid a visit to Senators Risch and Shaheen in order to deliver answers to their questions in person. 

Who’s acting behind the scenes? 

Bidzina Ivanishvili. Fresh reporting suggests that former Prime Minister has sealed a deal with Hogan Lovells, a U.S. law firm, which is expected to “act solely at the direction and control” of the Georgian Dream. The firm will try to paper over the differences between Ivanishvili’s party and the Capitol Hill through lobbyism.  

New to the contact list

Ambassador Kelly Degnan. On January 29, Tbilisi welcomed newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to Georgia. Her appointment brought back rumors that Georgia blocked previous U.S. nominee Bridget Brink (now Ambassador to Slovakia) because of her alleged predisposition toward former President Mikheil Saakashvili. In the Congressional hearing speech, Degnan outlined chiefly military and security considerations for her host country. Yet she too, in a diplomatic speak, pointed out fundamental importance of Georgia’s continued commitment to the principles of the rule of law and democracy.  

What featured last in the subject line

Ugulava’s imprisonmentOn February 10, the Supreme Court sent to jail Gigi Ugulava, an opposition leader, who played an active role in demanding changes in the electoral system. This time round Congressman did not turn to letters to make his opinion known. To say this is disturbing would be an understatement. Using courts as a weapon is NOT democracy,” Kinzinger tweeted.           

Learn more: Recently published report by the Heritage Foundation sums up top issues of US-Georgian relations in 2020 

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