U.S. Ambassador Kelly Degnan sat down for an interview with Formula TV on August 8 to discuss key issues including Russian aggression against Georgia, the U.S.’ role as the country’s strategic partner, recent attacks against her, as well as ex-PM and ruling Georgian Dream party founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, and media freedoms, among other topics.
2008 War Anniversary and Russian Aggression
Discussing the 14th anniversary of the Russo-Georgian 2008 August War, Amb. Degnan offered condolences for lives lost and reiterated Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s statement that Russia “must be held accountable” and fulfill its obligations under the 2008 ceasefire agreement.
Along that line, the Ambassador emphasized that the best response to Russia’s aggression is “international unity and unity within Georgia… In Georgia, the best way to protect against Russian aggression is unity in building strong democratic institutions, in coming together around building an open and free society.”
She added that the U.S. has been Georgia’s strategic partner for 3 decades and helped it “build its democracy, strengthen its economy, and its ability to defend its borders.”
Along that line, Amb. Degnan stated, “… I’ve spent almost every day trying to bring Georgia’s leaders together, trying to help them overcome this deep polarization that exists here. And that’s why it’s disappointing to hear people, who know that this is the truth, try to accuse Western partners of being responsible for Georgia’s deep polarization and politicized environment.”
“… It’s disappointing for people to try and blame Georgia’s Western partners for something that all of Georgia’s political parties from all sides have both created and need to eliminate,” she added.
Georgia’s Actions Towards Ukraine
Asked about Georgia’s response to the Ukraine war, Amb. Degnan said, “Georgia and Ukraine are natural allies, and they should be settling any differences they have privately and not through the media. We know that the Kremlin is trying to divide Georgia and Ukraine… trying to confuse Georgians and Ukrainians. So public disputes like this are only helping the Kremlin do their dirty work.”
In a follow-up, the Ambassador positively acknowledged both the humanitarian assistance that the Georgian people have sent to Ukraine and the supporting actions the government has taken through international forums, financial sanctions, and export controls.
Referencing controversy around perceptions that the government could be doing more and is being pressured by Western partners to do so, she underscored, “… There has been no retribution towards Georgia for the government’s choice not to contribute more… From the very beginning, the United States has been clear to Georgia’s leaders that we understand Georgia’s sensitive situation… [and] long history of Russian aggression…”
The War Blackmail Conspiracy
Regarding rumors circulating in Georgia and fueled by ruling party departees that the U.S. is trying to drag Georgia into the war, Amb. Degnan reiterated in Georgian, “We do not want war. We want peace.”
“Anyone who is genuinely interested in my remarks and my responses can see that I have answered these questions many times, now in Georgian as well as English,” Amb. Degnan emphasized. “Those who continue to ask the same questions… are either not really interested in what I have to say, or they have their own motives for continuing to repeat what has clearly been identified as disinformation, as false information.”
The Ambassador added that while it’s acceptable to disagree with strategic partners, “the problem comes with disinformation campaigns that ignore or distort the truth. We’re seeing a lot of those in Georgia, especially since Russia’s attacks against Ukraine. These are designed to confuse and divide Georgians.”
“We have never tried to drag Georgia into the war… this is simply propaganda…,” she concluded.
Asked about her meeting with Ivanishvili in March and the reasons for which he may have disclosed its occurrence to the public, Amb. Degnan stated, “I certainly don’t want to speculate on Mr. Ivanishvili’s motivations. For our part, I can say that we don’t usually publish private meetings with Mr. Ivanishvili or anyone. That’s not the custom for diplomats…”
She emphasized however that once Ivanishvili raised the issue, the Ambassador had no qualms about disclosing the meeting which focused on Georgia’s strategic partnership with the U.S.
“Mr. Ivanishvili is a very influential Georgia. He’s a very successful businessman, so it is normal that we would want to meet with him, as we do with many Georgians. In fact, that’s what diplomats do,” Amb. Degnan explained and added that there was no discussion of Ivanishvili’s “personal financial dealings, or sanctions, or anything that could possibly be construed as trying to blackmail or to drag Georgia into the war.”
European Commission’s 12 Recommendations
In a question about the European Commission’s 12 recommendations for Georgia to attain EU candidate status, the Ambassador denoted, “this is an important opportunity for Georgia to address some very needed modernization steps.”
- European Commission’s Memo Detailing Recommendations for Georgia
- Part of Opposition Starts Parallel Working Process on EU Recommendations
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“It’s not a criticism, but it needs to be done in a way that shows that Georgia’s leaders understand the European Union wants to see Georgia act together on something that is so important for its future,” she stressed, “and to see that on this priority the leadership of Georgia, opposition, ruling party, including civil society and other stakeholders can really come together, put aside their differences.”
“I think time will tell if the outcome of that process is a truly inclusive process that addresses the recommendations that have been raised,” she added.
De-oligarchization and Ivanishvili
In a follow-up about one of the recommendations of de-oligarchization, the Ambassador said, “It’s not for the United State to weigh in on this issue. It is for the people of Georgia to determine how best to prevent undue influence by anyone on political or judicial or other official processes.”
“That is why it’s important that these working groups be inclusive so that all views are heard and can be debated and discussed, and a consensus reached on the best way to prevent undue influence…,” she added.
Asked specifically about whether Ivanishvili is an oligarch, Amb. Degnan maintained the line, “It is not for the United States to say whether he is, or anyone is an oligarch. That is for the Georgian people to determine. An approach that goes after the root cause, which is undue influence – either in money or personal influence – affecting the political and judicial and official processes: that is the core that this law should be trying to get at.”
Asked about judicial reforms, the Amb. first stated, “Let me say upfront, the United States does not interfere in the determination of judicial verdicts or outcomes. Clearly, there is a lot more work to do… but ultimately it’s going to Georgia’s leaders who demonstrate whether they’re willing to make the reforms that are needed to create a truly independent, transparent, and impartial judiciary.”
She emphasized that the U.S. has worked for years to ensure that the judiciary becomes “more effective, more transparent” and for it to be “more responsive to the needs of citizens” through judicial exchanges to the U.S., bringing American judges here, and modernizing the judicial system.
“The goal of our investment over time has been to help Georgia create a more transparent and independent and impartial judiciary because we recognize how important that is. We will continue to support Georgia’s efforts to make these reforms…,” she said.
Underscoring the importance of reforms for “Georgia’s European future,” the Amb. Degnan remarked, “it’s hard sometimes to explain why there is so much resistance from some to adopting these reforms that experts have said are necessary for Georgia to have a truly independent and impartial judiciary.”
In a follow-up about Judge Lasha Chkhikvadze, the Ambassador reiterated that the U.S.’ “programs are not used to sanction or punish people.” Judge Chkhikvadze had alleged that following a meeting with a U.S. Embassy representative on his ruling to imprison opposition Mtavari Arkhi TV chief Nika Gvaramia, he was removed from a U.S. exchange program for judges.
Ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili
On the matter of imprisoned former President Mikheil Saakashvili and his worsening health, Amb. Degnan said, “We are regularly in touch regarding his condition. We are very concerned to be sure that he’s receiving the proper medical care that he needs and that he’s being treated with dignity in accordance with his human rights and his constitutional rights.”
Speaking about media freedoms, the Amb. emphasized it is an important priority for the Embassy “because media freedom is so important to an informed public. That is how the public receives accurate information… [and] holds their government accountable… and they need to be able to do their work in safety, without fear of being harassed or beaten or intimidated.”
“That’s why all governments have a responsibility to ensure that journalists can do their jobs safely and without interference. So, I think that this is, again, something that we need to keep reminding and reinforcing.,” she added.