US Ambassador: “US won’t walk away from people of Georgia”

Netgazeti on April 13 published an interview with US Ambassador Kelly Degnan, in which she spoke about topical issues, such as recent sanctioning by the US State Department of Georgian judges, US-Georgia relations, Georgia’s EU bid and other topics.

On BBC Investigation of global scam network with Georgian links

Ambassador said she “has not has a chance to hear the full story”. She stressed that this is an example, and a reminder why it is important “to have independent investigative journalism, and competent authorities to look into allegations like this to ensure people’s rights are protected”.

On sanctions against Georgian judges and comments by GD members quoting her as allegedly saying these are just visa restrictions

The Ambassador said that it is quite clear under the US law “what these designations mean and why they are required under US law”. She said: “When we have sufficient evidence or information that people are involved in corrupt acts, it doesn’t matter what term you use, the results are the same: these individuals are not eligible to enter the US”.

She stressed: “Once the Secretary of State had sufficient credible information of significant corrupt acts we are required under the US law to impose these visa designations… “ She also said that if Georgian authorities want to open their own investigations into these allegations, under the Georgian law, that is of course up to Georgian authorities, adding: ”we would hope they would embrace this opportunity to demonstrate Georgia’s commitment to fighting corruption, protecting rule of law, and independent judiciary”, noting that “this government, this ruling party campaigned back in 2011-2012 to better ensure an independent judiciary”.

On the probability of mistake/misinforming the US authorities in the process of judges’ sanctioning

Kelly Degnan said that this is not true and is mischaracterization, stressing that before the information got to Secretary Blinken there had been a thorough examination of the information “to establish that it is sufficient, credible and strong enough to be the basis for imposing these visa designations”. She also added that most of this information is publicly available and has been widely known for years.

The Ambassador noted that the US has worked with this government on 4 waves of judicial reforms, and saw progress. She emphasized, that “unfortunately, in the last 4 years we have seen lack of political will to follow through on the meaningful reforms that would transform this judiciary into truly independent, impartial judiciary”. She stressed that she has met many hard-working and professional judges in Georgia, who “want to do their job without political interference”. She also stressed that it is very clear what steps remain to be taken, either from 5 Venice Commission reports or other legal expertise, “to allow Georgian judges to do their jobs as they would like”.

On what she would say to those who claim these sanctions are infringing on Georgian judiciary’s independence

Kelly Degnan said that “this mischaracterizes these designations” stressing that this is not about Georgian judicial system at large, or about political parties, but “it is about these 4 individuals” who according to the Ambassador “block the functioning of Georgian judicial system as they have been involved in coercing judges, manipulating appointments, or assignments and discipline of other judges”, etc. She said that these are acts have undermined Georgia’s judicial independence and blocked the progress on the path of strengthening of the country’s judiciary. The Ambassador stressed: “This is so important because fundamentally democracy rests on the independence of its judiciary” explaining: “If you don’t have an independent and impartial judiciary the public doesn’t have confidence in fair elections, that it will get justice in courts”. The Ambassador concluded:” That’s why we stand ready to continue this work with the government, judiciary and Ministry of Justice to continue helping Georgia improve its judicial system”. She noted that this is priority for US and for Georgia, as well as the requirement of EU for Georgia’s membership and part of 12 priorities.

On expansion of sanctions against these or imposition of new ones against additional individuals

The Ambassador reiterated that the US doesn’t preview its sanctions.

On whether in case of failure to receive EU candidate status Georgian government might blame US for damaging its image:

The Ambassador stated: “I don’t’ think that’s logical”.

She also stressed that the government and all political leaders need to exert all efforts to demonstrate commitment to 12 recommendations “in a truly meaningful way so that every EU Members State has no reason not to give candidate status, and every reason to embrace Georgia moving forward on its EU membership path”.

On the use by GD of labels, such as “Satanists”, “liberal fascists”, LGBT propaganda”, “church enemies”

The Ambassador said that”labeling and stigmatizing people is completely inappropriate”. She added that there is no doubt what people of Georgia want and that they peacefully expressed that in Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Batumi and other parts of the country. She added: “Any government needs to be responsive to will of the people”.

On what she thinks the goal of the “second front” rhetoric is

Kelly Degnan said she doesn’t want to speculate on the purpose, but “the result is keeping people afraid”, especially considering that Georgia is in a “sensitive situation” with 20% of its territory occupied. She stressed that “propaganda designed to keep people on edge is very dangerous and inappropriate” She noted that this is the “same propaganda we hear from Russia” and its high level officials.

Amb. Degnan emphasized: “When this is echoed here in Tbilisi, every citizen should be concerned. There is absolutely no truth to the idea than anyone is trying to involve Georgia in this war. EU, US, NATO- all are doing everything to stop this war, not to expand it”. She added that this conspiracy does not make any sense, as US has spent 30 years helping Georgia to build its defense, economy, etc.

On whether this rhetoric is an attempt to discredit the West, which is critical of Georgian government

The Ambassador said: “It is very disappointing when we hear the members of the ruling party echo anti-West pro-Russian propaganda”.

She added that she has seen pro-Russian propaganda from a variety of sources, which is designed to undermine strong partnership and friendship between the US and Georgia, and between Georgia and its EU future. She stressed: “But people of Georgia made it clear again and again that their choice is Europe”. She underlined that this is a path Georgia has walked for centuries and that she believes the fact that Georgia has preserved its centuries-old script, language and culture shows the nation’s commitment to freedom and to preserving its independence and sovereignty.

On the arrest of Saakashvili and her earlier statement that his case would be the test for Georgia’s judiciary

Amb. Degnan said: “We are very concerned about Public Defender’s office latest efforts reporting further deterioration in his condition”. She stressed that it remains the government’s responsibility to provide medical, psychological help he needs and ensure his condition improves.

On how realistic is media-related EU condition fulfillment without the release of Nika Gvaramia

Kelly Degnan said: “We’ve raised questions about Gvaramia case since very beginning”. She recalled the Public Defender’s office statement qualifying the arrest as politically motivated. She also stressed that this is one more example showing the need to have an independent judiciary “so this kind of political prosecution is no longer in question” adding that this particular case is aggravated by the fact he is the head of one of the opposition media”. She also noted: “We see that media space is narrowing in last couple of years”.

On whether GD policies could have an effect on US aid to Georgia

The Ambassador said that Georgia still enjoys a very strong bipartisan support in the US congress, “which has been providing its assistance to Georgia for decades, because our support goes to the people of Georgia”. She also said that “there is some concern about where Georgia is going”, adding : “but Congress and State Department understand this is a difficult process”. She noted: “We have very robust partnership, strong track record of accomplishing things together in the interest of the Georgian people”.

The Ambassador stressed: “I can assure you the US won’t walk away from people of Georgia and I hope Georgia’s political leaders won’t walk away from the US”.

On the Ambassador-Nominee Robin Dunnigan:

Kelly Degnan said: “She is one of our finest diplomats”, adding that the Amb. Dunigan is “very experienced”, “familiar with the region” and is “very excited about coming to Georgia”.

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