Interview | Special Advisor to the U.S. President Michael Carpenter

Amb. Michael R. Carpenter, Special Advisor to the President and Senior Director for Europe at the U.S. National Security Council, spoke with the Voice of America (VoA)-Georgian Service on May 20 as the Georgian Parliament prepares to override a presidential veto of the Foreign Agents Law next week and as U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) has introduced legislation in the House of Representatives that would impose sanctions, including visa bans, on Georgian government officials responsible for passing the Foreign Agents Law while also envisaging deepening relations if Georgia reverses it’s recent undemocratic vector. With the kind permission of VoA, we offer our readers the original English transcript of the interview, with our minor edits for clarity.

Ani Chkhikvadze, Voice of AmericaWe saw the Assistant Secretary of State Jim O’Brien come to Georgia and discuss the proposed so-called foreign agent law with the Georgian authorities. Jim O’Brien said that there should be some modifications, if not the withdrawal of the law. The message has been somewhat vague. Are we talking about modifications or withdrawal of the legislation?

We believe that this law impinges on the ability of civil society to be able to express its views freely and to operate freely in Georgia. So, as this law was passed, this is of great concern to us because it prevents civil society from exercising their democratic freedoms. I think we would like to see the law withdrawn.

Are you still working with the Georgian authorities on this subject or not?

Look, we’ve been very clear. And President Zurabishvili has been very clear. The law as drafted impinges on the rights of civil society organizations to do what civil society is essentially designed to do in a democratic state, which is to provide a check and balance on government power. Civil society organizations need to be able to speak freely.

They need to be able to have freedom of assembly. That’s what democracy is all about. This law goes in the direction of the Russian foreign agents’ law. It is something that often is used in autocratic societies to limit the ability of civil society to function. And that’s just not where we think, Georgia is at if it wants to continue with its Euro-Atlantic trajectory.

We’ve seen over the years many steps that indicated that the Georgian government was taking undemocratic steps and moving away from its declared Euro-Atlantic aspirations, whether it’d be attacks against the West, use of proxy groups to demonize the West, or the violence against the activists and the opposition members. I can go on. But in absence of this law, if the law were to disappear tomorrow, what does that say about Georgian government’s democratic credentials?

We’d love to see the law get withdrawn precisely because of the things that I just said. But I won’t hide from you that we’re concerned with some of the anti-Western rhetoric. Rhetoric that’s coming from the current government. I mean, when the current government attacks the West and [talks] about the Global War party, I frankly find that outrageous and offensive.

I don’t know what they’re referring to. We’ve always supported Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders. We have supported Georgia in the Geneva International Discussions and to make these kind of allegations publicly, again, I find it outrageous. But Georgia has long been a beacon of democracy in a region that’s been troubled, that’s not been very democratic. And unfortunately, what we’re seeing lately is a reverse direction, that is, frankly, incompatible with Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. We hope it’s reversed.

Are you discussing at this point sanctions against the Georgian government?

I don’t have any new policies to announce to you today, but we’re looking at various forms of consequences. And as I said before, I mean, it’s just it’s not feasible for the government to carry along with its Euro-Atlantic trajectory while implementing these sorts of laws that would undercut democracy at home. The two are not compatible.

So, to make sure I understand you correctly: you position is – “withdraw the law”. That message has been somewhat vague for many in Georgia.

This Foreign Agents’ law is modeled on a similar law in Russia that does not allow for civil society to have freedoms of assembly and expression. And we find that deeply troubling. And if the Georgian government wants to continue along the path of Euro-Atlantic integration, it’s going to have to make some choices. And one of those choices we believe necessary – is withdrawing this law.

We’ve seen co-Chair of Helsinki Commission Joe Wilson introduce a legislation envisaging so-called sticks and carrots. If Georgia is to do certain things, than Georgia could get some benefits, including military assistance and so on. Do you share the spirit of the initiative, which could mandate sanctions in case the Russian law goes forward, and rewards if the Georgian government takes democratic trajectory and holds free and fair elections. Does the White House share the same view as [the US congress]?

As I said earlier, I am certain that there will be consequences if this law is passed. And as I said before, Georgia has a choice before it: it can either proceed with consolidating its democratic institutions, allowing for freedom of assembly, allowing for freedom of speech, allowing for civil society to operate unhindered. Or it can take the path of adopting legislation modeled on similar legislation in Russia that is incompatible with democracy.

Those are two stark choices. And so the future really depends on the Georgian government. It is in their hands whether they want to continue down the current path that this law sets out, or down the democratic path, which has been the path that we’ve supported for all these years of supporting Georgia’s democratic independence, sovereignty.

But do you share their position, do you cooperate with Congress on the initiated legislation ?

I’m not going to comment on any specific legislation before it’s passed, but, we are consulting with members of Congress. As you know, I was Ambassador to the OSCE. I have strong relationships with all the members of the Helsinki Commission. The reality is the members of Congress and members of this Administration, we care passionately about Georgia. We’ve invested a lot in Georgia’s democratic path. I personally have advocated for Georgia’s EU candidate status. We’ve said all these things for many, many years- that we want Georgia in NATO, we want Georgia in the EU.

We think that’s in our national interest. And frankly, we think that that’s compatible with the aspirations of the Georgian people. So now it’s really up to the Georgian government.

Do you think this government will be able to hold free and fair elections, given the violence, attacks, threats and blackmail we have seen in recent weeks?

In terms of free and fair elections, of course it is essential that Georgia have free and fair elections in October. However, if civil society and the political opposition are not able to articulate their views, if they are vilified as being agents of a foreign power, that will create, a landscape that is not conducive to free and fair elections.

So, this law is part and parcel of the environment leading up to those elections in October, which we certainly hope will be free and fair because we want Georgia to continue down its democratic path.

When you are talking about measures – this is also somewhat unclear for the Georgian audience – what measures are you considering?

Look, we have to evaluate what direction the Georgian government is currently on. There are a number of measures that can be taken. Most importantly, NATO and the EU will have to evaluate whether to continue with Georgia’s, NATO integration and the EU accession. Those are very important strategic decisions that will be taken by NATO allies and by the EU member states.

But obviously, the actions that the Georgian government takes over these next few months are going to influence those decisions, as well as the decisions of my own government on our partnership, with Georgia. So, as I said, we are deeply vested in supporting a democratic Georgia. We’re disturbed by some of the anti-Western rhetoric that we’ve heard over these last few months and years.

And we hope that the Georgian government takes actions that are consonant with democracy. It’s as simple as that.

And the last question, and I know this is peculiar, but we have seen some of the Georgia’s ruling majority talk about the Global War party.  And it seems that they are connecting it to Freemasonry. It’s a strange question I know, but have they provided any information about this to you?

I guess you would have to ask those who are using the term “Global War party” what they are referring to by that term. However, if this is an allegation or accusation that is made against the West, then, as I said earlier, frankly, I find it outrageous and offensive.

We have supported peace and stability in the South Caucasus. We participate in the Geneva International Discussions. We’ve supported Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity since independence and particularly since 2008. And we’ll continue to do that. So, any allegations to the contrary are false.


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