On March 11, the United States House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment held a hearing, looking into the conflicts in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.
In his opening statement, the Subcommittee chairperson William Keating (D-MA) said that although the Russian intervention in each of the three countries took place in different decades, “none of these countries had maintained full control over its borders to this day and instead had been trapped in the incredibly precarious situation of striving to make critical reforms to strengthen democratic governance, and develop closer ties to the West.”
Speaking of the “incredible human toll” that all of the three countries have suffered, Congressman Keating noted that “innocent civilians had lived through these wars and this destruction because of Russia’s arrogance and aggression.” Referring to Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine as “pro-western” countries, Keating said they are “friends and partners,” that continue to enhance their democracies and ties with Europe and the U.S. in economy and security. “The countries will be strong partners, once they achieve sovereignty over their borders,” he stated.
Ranking member of the subcommittee Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) also noted that the conflicts in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia carry “their own unique problems,” but they have “one distinct common denominator,” which is Russia. According to Kinzinger, these conflicts have shown “Russia’s willingness to use an advanced set tools to prevent nations that used to be within the Soviet sphere of influence from moving closer to Western institutions.”
Kinzinger stressed that “while open hostilities between Russia and Georgia had been going on since the fall of the USSR,” it was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s action “to grant Russian passports to Georgian citizens in 2002 that had laid the groundwork for the Russian intervention” in 2008.
“We now see the Russian occupied territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia slowly moving their borders to occupy more Georgian territory. Many ethnic Georgians in these regions have fled for fear of persecution and some have died given the lack of medical care provided inside these areas,” Kinzinger stated.
Congressman Kinzinger highlighted that since Georgia’s independence in 1991, “we have witnessed the Georgian people march towards democracy and a deeper partnership with the West.” “Just this weekend our allies in Georgia proved that while Russia occupies their territory, it would not hold them from their goals of the EU and NATO accession. Democracy is not easy it needs to be cared for and it needs to be fought for,” Kinzinger said alluding to the March 8 electoral reform deal between the ruling Georgian Dream party and the opposition.
Kinzinger welcomed the agreement, adding that there was still work to be done in Georgia to ensure that 2020 parliamentary polls “were free from interference.” He also called for strengthening the business environment “to allow Americans and European investment.” “Our Georgian allies must be commended for their work to defend their democracy,” Kinzinger concluded.
In his testimony, Dan Baer mentioned that the Russian aggression towards its neighbors, including Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, “remained a threat to the long term interests” of the U.S., as well as “to people on the ground in all three countries.”
“Vladimir Putin’s efforts to undermine democratic progress in Europe and to coerce European countries—particularly those European countries that are former Soviet republics—is inimical to this strategic interest. We stand to benefit from the prevalence of rule-of-law, peace, and prosperity in Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova; and of course their citizens do too,” he wrote.
Baer also noted that Russia’s “purported annexation of Crimea and continued de-facto occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia and Transnistria in Moldova represent a broader challenge to the international system that— imperfectly, but persistently—undergirds the security of all states.”
Baer drew attention to Russia’s recent cyber attack against Georgia, noting that this was “another weapon in Putin’s arsenal of aggression.” According to him, “many Americans were aghast” that Russia “intervened so dramatically” in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. However, “none of our friends in Georgia, Ukraine, or Moldova were surprised—they have been dealing with Russian active measures (and opportunistic politicians who take advantage of them) for years,” he said.
According to Baer, the U.S. “should continue to support the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova within their internationally recognized borders.” Hailing Georgia’s electoral reform agreement, Baer noted that “Georgia’s future integration in European and transatlantic institutions depended upon continued progress in reforming institutions, protecting the independence of the judiciary, and a free press that not subjected to political control.”
In her testimony, Olesya Vartanyan focused on the situation of ethnic Georgians in occupied regions, saying that their number was not large – around 50,000 people out of the total of 230,000 dwellers in both regions, but they represented approximately 25 % of the population in Abkhazia and almost 10 % in Tskhinvali region.
“Since 2008, crossing between each of the breakaway regions and Georgian-controlled territory has been difficult. People are often forced to pay bribes on top of the onerous paperwork needed to get permission to cross. Local de facto authorities sometimes close crossing points for long periods of time with no warning and for reasons that often have nothing to do with security concerns,” she wrote.
Vartanyan touched upon the ways that the “borderization” policy “sought to entrench the separation of the breakaway regions from Georgia proper, severing many ethnic Georgians from family, essential services and livelihoods.” “Communities on both sides of the line of separation suffer,” she said. Vartanyan noted that in order to address some of the aspects of the situation, the U.S. “should continue its clear non-recognition policy, which sent a strong and important signal against entrenchment.”
On his part, Stephen B. Nix said that the conflicts imposed by Vladimir Putin upon Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova “had created military, political and policy challenges in all these countries.” He then spoke at length about the situation in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali, noting that “the frozen conflicts continue to impact Georgian domestic politics in profound ways, particularly regarding security and economic policy.”
“Most notably the very existence of Russian-backed separatist authorities has been cited as the primary barrier to Georgian accession to NATO,” Nix said, adding that “many European members of the alliance are publicly concerned that Russian military activity in the regions would be used as a cause to invoke Article 5 of the NATO Charter.”
Nix stated that “although Georgia had regularly and actively engaged its partners in the United States and Europe for a more direct role in NATO, these efforts did not yield any tangible benefit despite Georgia’s extensive contributions to the NATO mission in Afghanistan and to joint exercises in the region.” “It is clear that a path to Georgian membership will come through the efforts of the United States,” Nix said.
Nix reckoned that “continued economic development in Georgia was perhaps the strongest antidote to Russian intervention,” and that Georgia “was currently resigned to choosing between an aggressive neighbor that it must engage with in order to survive, and a European future that it desperately vied for but could not yet attain.”