The resolution of Georgia’s ongoing political crisis “could either recommit the country to democracy or erode the efforts of many years,” said Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) of the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations, during the Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation’s hearing on Georgia’s political impasse on March 23. U.S. State Department’s George Kent and Kara McDonald, Deputy Assistant Secretaries gave testimonies.
“It is not enough to hold an election that meets the threshold of legitimacy. Democratic elections must have robust mechanisms in place to resolve disputes – mechanisms that are seen as fair by all participants in the democratic process,” Senator Shaheen said, calling on the Georgian authorities to undertake democratic reforms “with expediency.”
The Senator stressed that Georgia’s commitment to democracy must be demonstrated by both members of the government and the opposition. “So it is imperative that the government take steps to ensure an independent judiciary, and to work with all opposition parties to find a negotiated resolution to the crisis,” she added.
“Given the current impasse, the only party who is winning is Russia. Every day members of the opposition sit in jail is a victory of Russia; every day the Georgian Parliament seats are empty is a disservice to the people of Georgia and a victory for Russia,” she said.
Concluding her statement, Senator Shaheen called on all sides to “put aside short-term political interests to instead look to the strengthening and perseverance of Georgian democracy.” She expressed hopes that the crisis will be resolved by the U.S. Memorial Day, May 31.
Remarks By George Kent, Deputy Assistant Secretary
The Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, George Kent stated that “both the ruling Georgian Dream party and the opposition have failed to act on opportunities to deescalate.” “Unfortunately most of the opposition boycotted the new parliament even though a majority of Georgians who voted for the opposition want the elected MPs to take up their seats,” he stated.
“This is a pivotal moment in Georgia’s democratic development. As Georgia’s strategic partner and friend, the U.S. must speak frankly when Georgia’s leaders, especially in the ruling party seem to be drifting from the path chosen by the people of Georgia,” he highlighted.
The senior State Department official said the detention of Nika Melia, the top opposition leader “intensified the crisis” and that “Melia’s arrest represented a step backward for Georgian democracy.” Recalling Melia’s breaking of the bail terms and ripping off his electronic bracelet, however, he said: “This gets into this issue of the full embrace of democratic norms and the rule of law by all Georgian leaders. So, this is why I think no one is blameless.”
Mr. Kent added that “Georgia’s current political crisis is concerning both in terms of democratic development and the potential for increased vulnerability to Russian malign influence.”
The State Department official noted that “integration into the West is a challenging road that requires a clear and unflinching commitment to shared values, democratic norms, and institutions with integrity that are foundational to a functioning democracy,” adding that “failure by the ruling party and the opposition to reach agreement would imperil Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations.”
In his remarks, the Deputy Assistant Secretary said “efforts to bolster Georgia’s western orientation are particularly critical in the aftermath of last year’s intensive fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh,” highlighting that Moscow now “has boots on the ground in all three South Caucasus countries.” He noted that Georgia remains “the key strategic partner” in the Southern Caucasus and that the U.S. continues supporting Georgia’s NATO membership goal.
Condemning Moscow’s occupation of Georgia’s Abkhazia and Tskhinvali/South Ossetia regions, he said “Russia uses its occupation of twenty percent of Georgia, economic leverage, cyber attacks and disinformation to sow division and distrust, and to try to force Georgia to abandon its Euro-Atlantic aspirations.”
Asked what more the U.S. can do to aid ending Georgia’s political impasse, Deputy Assistant Secretary Kent underscored the value of the right messaging “as Georgians understand how critically important friends here [the U.S.] have been to Georgia’s success.” “Perhaps by the time we get to Memorial Day [May 31] recess it will be possible for travel again,” he added.
Remarks By Deputy Assistant Secretary Kara McDonald
Kara McDonald of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, said despite the last year’s constitutional and electoral reforms, “a series of negative developments and trends, however, trouble us greatly and urgently call attention to work that remains in protecting and advancing Georgia’s democratic gains.”
“Ruling party’s concentration of power in state institutions, a politicized judiciary, and pressure on civil society – these undermine Georgians’ confidence in their democracy,” asserted Ms. McDonald.
In her words, despite passing reforms in 2020 based on some ODIHR recommendations, “Parliament did not adopt critical and longstanding ODIHR recommendations regarding the integrity of the electoral appeals process.” “The courts in turn did not serve as an effective check on election administration bodies,” she added.
Urging reform for “an independent, accountable and people-centered” judicial system, she noted that the “politicization of the judiciary and prosecutions widely considered politically motivated also contribute to democratic vulnerability.” She said the Georgian Dream’s “dominance of the judiciary includes the undue influence of powerful judges on other judges and use of the disciplinary promotion and appointment system to exert influence on judges.”
The State Department official also spoke of the Georgian Dream’s treatment of the civil society and free media, noting that “Georgia suffers from a significant deterioration in the ruling party’s conduct toward respected civil society leaders and an increasingly polarized national media environment.”
Asked about the possible use of conditionality in offering U.S. financial assistance to the Government of Georgia, Ms. McDonald said: “We have to constantly be considering what approaches and tools can be helpful.”