The U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on 16 November to assess U.S. policy in the Caucasus, with Senators asking the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Karen Donfried, critical questions about Georgia’s democratic backsliding, among other issues.
In response to a question from Senator Ben Cardin about Georgia’s democratic backsliding and how the U.S. should respond, including in reference to anti-Western rhetoric and attacks on U.S. Ambassador Kelly Degnan, Assistant Secretary Donfried emphasized that recent trends in Georgia regarding declining democracy have been “deeply concerning” for the U.S.
Recalling her visit to Georgia in June, which coincided with the European Commission’s decision to recommend a European perspective for Georgia, but not candidate status as with Ukraine and Moldova, the Assistant Secretary stated that it was “so emotional” in Georgia because the country “had been the frontrunner on this path to EU membership.”
“What strikes me about Georgia is 85% of Georgians support these Euro-Atlantic aspirations and I think that puts pressure on the government,” she remarked.
The Assistant Secretary also noted that the U.S. has reiterated its readiness to help Georgia achieve these reforms, and underscored, “we are still hopeful that there will be progress but absolutely we’re concerned about the lack of progress today.”
Addressing criticism leveled at Amb. Degnan, Assistant Secretary Donfried said that the Ambassador has been a “fantastic representative of the U.S. to Georgia and I will back her up any day of the week.”
“We have talked to the Georgian government about this, we have spoken to the Prime Minister about this, and while these are groups that are not part of the government, some of the groups who have been highly and wrongly critical of her, have close ties to the government and we have made clear that that criticism will undermine the partnership we have had over time,” she stressed.
In a follow-up accentuating that “demonstratable progress” must be seen from Georgia toward democratic goals and European integration, the Assistant Secretary retorted, “I think it’s important to remind all of us that Russia continues to occupy 20% of Georgia’s territory and seeks to negatively impact Georgia’s independence, its ties with the U.S., and its democracy. So I do believe, as you just said, that our continued engagement and support are critical for Georgia’s future and for the South Caucasus.”
In another question from Senator Jeanne Shaheen, on whether the U.S. should rethink its strategic partnership towards Georgia in light of “tremendous backsliding” and the fact that the Georgian government has “reneged” on its promise to attain EU candidate status, Assistant Secretary Donfried responded, “I think it’s always a good thing to assess policy so very open to having that conversation in greater detail with you, you know the reasons why we wanted to stay the course at this point in time.”
“We have voiced our strong concerns about some of the troubling statements and behaviors that we are seeing from some Georgian politicians. As I noted, I don’t think that those are indicative of the majority of Georgian people…,” she added.
Black Sea Strategy
In a question about the bipartisan bill on re-envisioning U.S. strategy towards the Black Sea region in light of the war in Ukraine and whether the U.S. State Department has such plans in mind, the Assistant Secretary stressed, “There is no question that Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has focused all of us on the Black Sea region and thinking about the way forward there.”
Noting that NATO has taken the threat posed by Russia to its allies on the Black Sea “very seriously,” she conveyed that “U.S. force posture in the region looks very different today than it did before February 24, so I think there’s no question that the way we are thinking about the region and thinking about the critical importance of U.S. engagement is different than it was before this war.”
She remarked, however, that currently, the U.S. focus is on “ensuring that Ukraine prevails in this war because in many ways that is going to be foundational for how we think about the Black Sea strategy.”
Ultimately, Assistant Secretary Donfried concluded that while the U.S. is focused on putting together a new strategy for the Black Sea region, she said that there is currently “no timetable” for this.