U.S. Ambassador Kelly Degnan spoke to the media at the Georgian Strategic Analysis Center on 18 November about the recent criticism directed at U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen after the Senator questioned whether the U.S. should reconsider its policy toward Georgia, including in terms of financial assistance, as well as the consequent calls for foreign CSO funding to be regulated.
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Responding to the critical statements made against Senator Shaheen, particularly by Georgian Dream MP Irakli Zarkua who dubbed the Senator a ‘bastard,’ U.S. Ambassador Degnan emphasized, “Well, from what I understand, no Georgian would use that kind of language against anyone. I think it was completely inappropriate, and most Georgians recognized that.”
Regarding the proposal for CSO restrictions, the Ambassador remarked, “that sounded to me like something straight out of the Kremlin playbook.”
“That’s what we see happening to NGOs in Russia,” she said. “I don’t think that is what Georgia has been working for these past 30 years, to go back to that kind of oppression.”
“In fact, I think, at least from my experience, as I’ve been traveling around Georgia, I have seen really important work that’s being done by NGOs and civil society to help improve the lives of everyday citizens,” Amb. Degnan noted.
In that context, Amb. Degnan highlighted that NGOs work to address environmental issues, provide legal aid to those in need, and assist students and young people, as well as the disadvantaged or disabled. “There are many different kinds of NGO groups and civil society groups that are made up of the people in the neighborhoods who want to address a problem and make this country and this society better for all Georgian citizens,” she stressed.
“That’s why we support Georgians who come together to form organizations like NGOs,” she pointed out, and added, “It’s surprising to me sometimes because many of the Members of Parliament, including in the ruling party, worked in NGOs—they started out in NGOs—and contributed to Georgia’s growth and development through the good work of NGOs.”
Reiterating that it’s “confusing” to see the criticism of NGOs, the Amb. underscored, “I would hate to see Georgia lose that strength, the voice that the people of Georgia have in their NGOs and their participation in civil society. It’s such an important part of a strong democracy and a strong Georgia.”
In a follow-up question about the claims that U.S. assistance to Georgia goes primarily to CSOs, the Amb. stated, “As to the question regarding NGOs, I think you could ask any of the hazelnut farmers or the blueberry farmers or the dairy farmers, who have expanded their dairy herds or have been able to sell their milk and cheese in more markets, about the kind of support they’ve received from the United States.”
The Ambassador likewise pointed out the U.S. assistance for student exchange programs, and other exchange programs, as well as the relationship between the Georgian Defense Forces and the U.S. military and law enforcement agencies.
“These are not through NGOs,” she underscored. “They’re largely through the government or directly with people.”
“But we also do work, as I said, with some very good NGOs and civil society groups who are helping build a stronger Georgia, who are addressing issues at the grassroots level, the local level, at the national level to improve the quality of life, to create jobs and better environment for all the citizens of Georgia,” she asserted.
Amb. Degnan concluded by reiterating that the U.S. assistance to Georgia “has gone to improve the quality of life of Georgians. That’s who we care about: the people of Georgia.”