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Assistant Secretary O’Brien Warns of “Consequences” in His Final Briefing

On May 14, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Jim O’Brien held a briefing to discuss the results of his visit to Georgia and meetings with government representatives, civil society, and the opposition. Speaking about the foreign agents’ law adopted by the Parliament in its final reading today, the Assistant Secretary touched upon the possibility of its amendment and stressed there would be consequences if it is enacted in its current form.

Assistant Secretary O’Brien noted the U.S. “deeply values our relationship with Georgia,” which it sees as a strategic partnership, but added that “frankly, some of the recent speeches here [in Georgia] and the actions of the Parliament made us wonder if our strategic interests are shared by the government.”

He recalled the U.S. assistance of more than 6 billion USD to Georgia since 1992 as a manifestation of the strategic partnership. He added that this relationship got stronger since Georgia decided to integrate into the European and Euro-Atlantic structures. O’Brien stressed that it was the GD government that enshrined this commitment in the Constitution and said the U.S. is proud to have supported Georgia in this endeavor.

He then said that when he came to Georgia, he was “a little disturbed to find here two very different conversations.”

One conversation, he said, concerns the “law on foreign influence.” He noted that some advocates of the law say that funding transparency must be Georgia’s prime national interest, and they feel that “some western funders are not as transparent as they might be.” However, said the Assistant Secretary, “Our interest is in seeing Georgia converge with the EU and transatlantic norms for addressing issues like transparency.” He stressed that neither the process nor the actual implementation prescribed in the law meets those standards. He said the Georgian authorities promised there would be opportunities to address these shortfalls before the law was implemented. The Assistant Secretary noted he conveyed during his meetings that “there’d be consequences if the law is implemented as it now stands.”

PM Kobakhidze referred to this as coercion, but it’s not, stressed Jim O’Brien. Georgia is attempting to join the EU and NATO, he said, and “these organizations have certain referees and standards that say what the rules are.” He said that “ა decision by Georgia not to converge with [those standards] would be a rejection of the path” that’s enshrined in Georgia’s Constitution. Noting that the majority of the Georgian population wants Georgia to continue on that path, he stressed that if the law is modified in accordance with these standards, this “will strengthen our partnership, instead of wrenching it apart, which is what I feel is happening now.”

The Assistant Secretary then noted that another, larger part of the conversation is the GD’s “global war party” rhetoric and a pretense that there is a “conspiracy by the West of removing GD from office.” He called this “unreal, wrong, and a complete misunderstanding of the international community’s relationship with Georgia.” As an example of such misunderstanding, O’Brien cited the refusal of GD honorary Chairman Bidzina Ivanishvili to meet with him, under the pretext that the latter is under “de-facto sanctions.” Jim O’Brien said: “There are no sanctions on him at this point. For such an influential individual to be this badly misinformed is shocking and disappointing.”

Assistant Secretary further noted: “For the Prime Minister to say that that is the reason that one of Georgia’s most important partners cannot meet with this citizen is to elevate that individual interest above the country’s constitutional commitment to working more with international partners on joining the EU and NATO.” And that example, O’Brien said “captures what I think is so important and could be a turning point in what has been till now a constructive and productive partnership.”

He then articulated the U.S. position: ” If there are going to be demonstrations, we want them to be peaceful and the police presence to be peaceful.” He added that there should be no intimidation of the protesters or others, “either at the demonstration or at their homes, or against their property as has happened in recent days.” He added, “People responsible for the intimidation should be held responsible.”

O’Brien emphasized: “If the law goes forward without conforming to EU norms” and the rhetoric against the U.S. and other partners continues, the relationship with the US would be “at risk.” The Assistant Secretary stressed that if Georgia now regards the U.S. “as an adversary and not as a partner,” the 390 mln USD assistance package, encompassing defense, economic, and development projects, would have to be “put under review.”

O’Brien noted further: “If the law goes forward out of conformity with EU norms and it undermines democracy here, and there is violence against peaceful protesters, then we’ll see restrictions coming from the US, financial and travel restrictions on individuals responsible for these actions, and their families.”

He stressed that he hoped that Georgia would “begin again” on the path towards the EU and NATO and as a robust democracy otherwise “we will revisit these topics very soon,” noted the Assistant Secretary.

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