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Interview with Adam Kinzinger, Co-chair of House Georgia Caucus

I am hopeful that we can find a solution“, – said Rep. Adam Kinzinger in an sit-down interview with VOA Georgian’s Ani Chkhikvadze. Congressman Kinzinger is co-chair of the Georgia Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives and the author of recent letter to the Georgian government urging them to deliver on electoral reform and adhere democratic principles. Ms. Chkhikvadze interviewed Congressman Kinzinger about recent developments in Georgia including imprisonment of opposition leader Gigi Ugulava, ongoing negotiations over the electoral reform and role of the Congress for VOA Georgian.

Ani Chkhikvadze: Thank you very much for your time, I will start with recent developments in Georgia. You met with the leaders of Georgia, including Chairman of the Parliament. And you have sent couple of letters at this point to the Georgian government, urging them to deliver on the issues like electoral reform, moving to proportional system, against prosecuting political opponents, and so on. However, so far we have not seen any sign that Georgian government is addressing those concerns, what would you say to that?

Rep. Adam Kinzinger: I think it’s important to note that our interest is in [finding] a solution in Georgia. We recognize the importance of Georgia to us. And it’s an alliance that is extremely strong. Georgia continues to be a strong partner. But when I was there the week before the reforms were supposed to pass and then they failed, I was very disappointed. Right now, obviously, everybody is sort of at the table trying to come to a negotiated solution. That’s the answer in democracy. The only way to really take people with different interests and figure out how to live together is to give a little on both sides. I continue to call on the Georgian government, the speaker and the opposition to come to the table to work out something and then take that battle to the political ballot box in October. And, you know, one of the things we’re going to be looking at a lot is to make sure that the elections are free and that they’re fair.

The Parliament Chairman [Talakvadze] was on his visit here when European Georgia’s leader Gigi Ugulava was arrested in a case that raises many questions among European Georgia members and civil society about the political bias of justice system. Considering that the prosecutor who was prosecuting Ugulava, ended up reviewing his case [as a judge], in a rush manner. This case has led many here and in Europe to call on Georgian government to stop prosecuting political opponents. What would you say to Georgian government about this case after the developments has halted process?

When we heard rumors that this was going to happen, I’ve made my position very clear to the Georgian Dream and the leaders there, that this would be awful. This would be terrible.

You know, the Georgian people need to know that their justice system, just like it is here in the United States, is free and fair and doesn’t have a political bias.

And that is something that’s very concerning to us. When we see leaders of television stations that, you know, are sympathetic to the opposition being prosecuted or we see political leaders being re-arrested on charges they’ve already served. And I would continue to encourage the government of Georgia to find a way out of that, use the justice system for justice and [for] justice only. And then, I think that will be a good faith effort to bring everybody to the table. It is in the interest of both the governing party and the opposition to get a solution and [to] do this the right way, at the ballot box. Right now, the situation we’re in is not good for Georgia and not good for anybody, especially the government.

Do you think democracy in Georgia is under a threat considering these developments?

No, I don’t see it under a threat, we are in a concerning place right now. We will know more in October in terms of what happens, we will know more when these negotiations are done. Again, it’s important to remember, that the government of Georgia promised a fully proportional system in 2020, even though it’s constitutionally guaranteed in 2024, and a move towards that at least is important and necessary, and maybe [they can] meet the opposition halfway. That said, I don’t think we are at a failed state by any means, but it’s concerning. And the people of Georgia, and everybody with the stake in this, whether it’s opposition or [government] leaders right now, need to be very clear that if this fails, there is gonna be longer term problems in Georgia.

We’ve heard from the Georgian Dream members that there is not so much that Congress can do about these matters. What tools do you have to have Georgian government meet the requests of the partners?

Well, I think if people underestimate the role of Congress, that’s wrong. The United States is very different than, for instance, Georgia, where power is not concentrated in one area. Congress has a very important role to play, as the president has an important role to play. It’s also important to note, because I’ve seen some of this [being questioned] in the domestic media in Georgia, that the president and Congress are on the same page. We’re united.

In fact, I just met with our ambassador to Georgia and we’re all on the same page. I have a lot of confidence in her.

She’s going to do a great job and she wants to see a political solution, too. So, anytime – and I understand how domestic politics works here and, you know, to an extent in Georgia – anytime you hear that there’s a difference between Congress and the president, that’s not true. And anytime you hear that, you know, we’ve lost interest in Georgia, that’s not true either. We’re very interested.

And precisely on meeting with Ambassador Degnan, so far congress is more vocal on these questions than the administration. You said that you are on same page – is that so?

Yeah, I think we are definitely on the same page. I think you will see more stuff come from the administration.

But keep in mind, our job – whether it’s in congress or whether it’s a president – isn’t to come in and solve this problem for Georgian people. We are not here to make the Georgian government [be] like we want it to look. But what we are trying to do, is to show to the Georgian people, the government and opposition, how important it is to be able to put some of these differences aside for the bigger goal of going into legitimate elections. If legitimate elections would ever fail, if democracy would ever fail, it doesn’t benefit anybody, except maybe Russia, in a long run. And so we are here to try to help facilitate a solution, not to facilitate the solution that we want.

When Chairman of the Parliament was in Washington, D.C., I set down with him [for an interview] and he pointed out that the decision to move to the proportional system was an offer rather than a promise. So far, we have not seen much concessions from the Georgian Dream. Did they promise any concessions to you or did you see that they are ready for a compromise?

I’ve been having a lot of conversations with all parties. I think we can get closer to a solution than it seems likely right now. But I think some of the two big keys are: what is the system going to look like, proportional versus not? I believe, you know, I basically assumed that it was a promise that the government made to the Georgian people. Now, it failed in parliament, we can question why or how and all that, but let’s find a way to get to a solution on that. But the bigger key here, and it’s one we’re watching very closely, is not even so much the makeup of what this next election looks like. But most importantly, what does it look like in terms of the justice system? Are you going to allow people to go out and freely and fairly compete without threat of arrest?

If you do not see any progress on electoral reform, on moving to proportional system, what are you going to do next?

Well, I think we will surprise people with what that is. I mean, that’s something that we determine out here.

You know, I’m continuing to be hopeful that we can find a solution here. I’m hopeful that we can see a solution to the arrest and the threats of arrest and that we can find a solution to what the system looks like for 2020. Again, the guarantee was made that we’ll be fully proportional in 2024. And so, we’ll evaluate all of our options. Again, I intend to come back to Georgia. But ultimately, it’s not going to be what we do up here. It’s going to be what happens in Georgia. And it’s up to the Georgian people in a democracy to make that decision.

The letters that you sent to Georgia, and not only you but also  your colleagues from Senate as well (Senator Risch and Senator Shaheen have also addressed Georgian government with statements and letters) led to a response from the ruling party. Some of the members of the [Georgian] parliament said that reasons behind the criticism is that you do not have accurate information, and some have pointed to opposition influence, what would you reply to this?

Well, that’s always what’s interesting to me. We have every right to talk to members of the opposition, as we do in every country.

But I’ve probably on a four to one basis meet with the government and listen to what they have to say. I certainly hear more from them than I do from any opposition.

It is not talking points from an opposition, it’s concern that we have. And so, a letter is our way to say, not just to the government of Georgia, but also to the people of Georgia, (and that’s why it’s done in many cases in a public way) – to say “we’re paying attention”.

And if you want a partnership with us, which we desperately want with you, there are some stipulations and rules.

And it doesn’t just come with us being interested. So, you know, look, it’s certainly not whenever anybody says that opposition is out here lobbying, it’s not the case at all. But we can sometimes stand out here and look inside and see things from our perspective. And there are some concerning developments.

One of the topics that came up after the wave of the criticism against Georgian government is that this criticism might aid anti-Americanism in Georgia, do you share that view?

Well, it’s hard. You know, I don’t live in Georgia, so it’s hard to see what the effect is. I think if it does, they’re taking the wrong message out of it. If we weren’t interested in Georgia, we would not be writing these letters. I have so many other things I could focus on. But because we see such a great potential for Georgia, such a great future, that is why it’s important. So, the Russians will try to take advantage of everything, I’m sure, and there will be groups probably within Georgia that try to take advantage of it. But I think ultimately the Georgian people know that this is actually a positive sign because it means that we consider them an ally.

You’ve mentioned these in your letter: Facebook took down Georgian government-controlled  and coordinated accounts and trolls from its platform that were used against political opponents (including against you as well). Findings by Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab showed that these trolls and accounts were also spreading anti-American propaganda. At the same time, we see developments surrounding Anaklia [deep sea port] project. The contract for the [Anaklia Development] Consortium was cancelled. Previously, Secretary Pompeo has urged to build the port. With these in mind, do you see American interests threatened in Georgia today?

I don’t know about threatened, but we are very concerned. With the port we’ve made it clear that that’s extremely important. And, you know, not just for us, but for Georgia. I mean, all you have to do, (and the Georgians know this best) is look at your strategic position in the world. You know, short of Georgia, everything goes through Iran or Russia. And we want Georgia to play that role. That port’s going to be extremely important. We’ve brought that up over and over. I can’t say I’ve gotten the best answers, but I’ve gotten a commitment from the government in charge that they will continue to look for Western partners and that I hope that’s true.

And then in terms of the Facebook stuff, it’s very concerning. Domestic politics can be messy, and sometimes you don’t want to interpret domestic politics with how countries can relate to each other on the international level. But I certainly say it’s a bad sign. And it was a good thing that they were taken down.

When it comes to future relationship with Georgia and the interest of the United States… The U.S. State Department has made a statement about a cyber attack against Georgia and found that it was done by Russian GRU. What tools does the United States have to support Georgia vis-a-vis Russian threat?

Well, we have a lot of really good tools. We have a good military partnership. We never forget that Georgia is still involved in Afghanistan and actually per capita more involved than really any other country. We train each other well. And on the cyber level: cyber defensive defenses are important.

But what’s most important on cyber and disinformation particularly is just making people aware of disinformation. If you see a story that seems completely unbelievable, it probably is. And it’s probably part of this effort to manipulate or change minds. It’s how they used to do it in the Cold War but now they have the Internet.

So, there’s a lot of tools we have, that we’re actually implementing with Georgia and that will continue.

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This material was prepared for by the Voice of America. In order to license this and other content free of charge, please contact Adam Gartner.


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