U.S. Congressional Hearing Discusses Support for Georgia’s Sovereignty and Democracy

On June 4, the United States Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission) held a congressional hearing on supporting Georgia’s sovereignty and democracy. Chaired by U.S. Representatives Joe Wilson, the hearing featured testimonies from Ivane Chkhikvadze, EU Integration Program Manager at the Civil Society Foundation and Georgia Country Consultant at the European Endowment for Democracy; Natalie Sabanadze, Senior Fellow at Chatham House and former Georgian Ambassador to the EU; and Ambassador (Ret.) William Courtney, Adjunct Senior Fellow at the RAND Corporation and former U.S. Ambassador to Georgia.

The hearing came amid the recent adoption of the Russian-style foreign agents law and the U.S. announcement of sanctions against those undermining democracy in Georgia and a comprehensive review of all U.S.-Georgian cooperation, as well as the introduction of the MEGOBARI Act in the U.S. House of Representatives, and another piece of legislation- Georgia People’s Act (GPA) in the U.S. Senate, both of which envisage imposing sanctions on Georgian officials and reviewing U.S.-Georgia relations.

Opening Remarks

U.S. Representative Joe Wilson opened the session by highlighting the decades-long U.S.-Georgia partnership since Georgia’s independence. “Our two countries have worked closely together to develop deep and far-reaching reforms in Georgia…” Wilson said, noting: “The United States have contributed over six billion dollars in direct assistance and much more beyond to provide opportunities and open horizons for the Georgian people.”

Against this backdrop, Wilson regretted that this strong bond between the two countries has come under attack by Georgia’s ruling party Georgian Dream and due to the adoption of the infamous foreign agents law. “This law is openly intended to stigmatize and undermine the nation’s independent civil society and media, and suppress avenues for alternative thoughts on the scene,” he said, adding: “This foreign agents law appears to be only the tip of the iceberg of the government anti-democratic turn.”

Recalling the recent organized campaign of intimidation against civil society, opposition and government critics, he said: “Georgian Dream is actively embracing war criminal Putin and other authoritarians despite Putin occupying 20 percent of its internationally recognized territory…” He also noted that GD is expanding its ties with the Chinese Communist Party, which he said is “another aspect of its dictatorial turn.”

“The United States must not allow this attack on Georgian democracy and its Euro-Atlantic future to go unanswered,” he said, welcoming the State Department’s recent announcement of visa restrictions for those undermining democracy in Georgia. “But we must do more to keep our promises to the people of Georgia,” he said, welcoming the introduction of the MEGOBARI Act.

Steve Cohen, Ranking Member of the Helsinki Commission, also delivered opening remarks. In his speech, he noted that through the foreign agents law, Georgian Dream is seeking government control in the name of transparency. “A country that tries to bully its NGOs is a country that is not democracy…” he said.


After the opening remarks, Ivane Chkhikvadze, Natalie Sabanadze, and William Courtney delivered thir testimonies.

Ivane Chkhikvadze, EU Integration Program Manager at the Civil Society Foundation and Georgia Country Consultant at the European Endowment for Democracy, gave an overview of Georgia’s recent democratic backsliding, with a focus on the adoption of the Russian-style law on Foreign Agents. He spoke of the repressions announced by Bidzina Ivanishvili on May 29, the ongoing persecution of the critics of the regime and and state promoted terror campaign.

He said that Georgia is now at the crossroads between Europe and Russia. “The choice of Georgian people is crystal clear: we are choosing freedom, democracy, rule of law, and see Georgia’s future in the European Union and NATO,” he said, stressing that the country’s ruling authorities go against the will of the people. By passing the foreign agents law, “the Georgian authorities are erecting the wall between Georgia and the West,” he added.

“The law will fully erase the critical voices and destroy the vibrant civil society that has been built in the country with the generous support of our friends and partners over the years, including the USAID,” Chkhikvadze said, speaking of the law’s ominous impact, including for the upcoming parliamentary elections. There is a serious threat he said, “that these elections will take place without critical media, independent civil society and independent observers.” Slamming the Georgian Dream’s recent policies, he said: “The ruling party is severely undermining Georgia’s future through increasing hostility towards western democratic values and capturing the state institutions…”

“The stakes are very high for Georgia, for the Georgian people, and for our friends. It would be a real missed opportunity if Western friends of Georgia do not act now,” he concluded, calling for “concrete steps.”

Natalie Sabanadze, Senior Fellow at Chatham House and former Georgian Ambassador to the EU, began her speech by praising the popular protest of the Georgian people and civil society.

“In today’s Georgia, democracy is being destroyed by the hands of the parliamentary supermajority,” she said, stressing that the “one unaccountable man” is reversing Georgia’s long-standing foreign policy priorities. “Georgia’s rulers maintain that the law that contradicts the principles of democracy and human rights is good for us,” she said on the foreign agents law, adding the GD is trying to convince Georgians that the law will not derail the country from the Euro-Atlantic path. She also said that this law is not the only problem, but rather a “symptom” of the current political crisis.

She said the Georgia is part of the trend, not an exception. She spoke that similar to the Georgian legislation has been adopted by numerous autocratic regimes from Russia to Venezuela “to equip themselves with the legal instruments of repressions”. She also spoke about the elections’ factor: “They are working to steal elections, not on the day of the vote… but weeks and months in advance with elaborate systems of incentives and pressures.” Noting that “the methods set by autocracies are becoming more sophisticated, more veiled in vocabularies of sovereignty and traditional values” Sabanadze emphasized that “civic protest movements are described as color revolutions, the work of outsiders and of local traitors manipulated by foreign governments.”

She added: ” These tactics are aimed at persuading citizens to stay our of politics, and to trade their freedom for order, their rights for a chance of prosperity and to accept the abuse of power for the sake of preserving the peace.”

“The Georgian government has joined the anti-liberal, anti-Western revolt spearheaded by Russia. In its war in Ukraine, Russia does not seek only to subjugate the Ukrainian nation and to reestablish its influence. It also seeks to de-westernize the global order. Ukraine is a major front, while lesser and ones have emerged in Georgia and elsewhere around the globe,” she said, calling for help for Georgia to avoid falling under Russia’s influence.

William Courtney, Adjunct Senior Fellow at the RAND Corporation and former U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, emphasized the longstanding U.S. support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

“The foreign agents law, modeled on the Russian repressive law, has sparked the largest popular protest since its [Georgia’s] independence,” he said, adding that the ruling GD “may abuse the law to protect its hold on power.”

Referring to the recent announcement of visa restrictions, the former U.S. ambassador to Georgia noted that if the GD government rigs the upcoming parliamentary elections, “relations will take a turn for the worse.” He noted that, as happened in Russia, the government could deny access to independent election monitors and disqualify candidates. He also said that the GD could emulate Russia in other ways, such as labeling civil society organizations as “undesirable.”


Following the testimony, the witnesses were questioned by U.S. Representative Joe Wilson, Senator Richard Blumenthal, House Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Steve Cohen, and U.S. Representative Victoria Spartz.

U.S. Assistance to Georgia

Responding to a question from U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson about the years of U.S. assistance to the Georgian people, Ivane Chkhikvadze and Natalie Sabandze emphasized humanitarian, military, and democracy assistance, as well as assistance to Georgia for the consolidation of democratic institutions and civil society. “[This assistance] is also at stake,” Chkhikvadze said.

Expected Impact of the Foreign Agents Law on Civil Society

Asked by the U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal about the effect of the foreign agents law in discouraging, deterring, and degrading civil society organizations, the former U.S. Amb. to Georgia noted that the law had just been enacted and therefore it might not have a serious impact at the moment, though he cited the Russian experience in wiping out dissent since 2012.

Dr. Sabanadze reiterated this, adding that the campaign of intimidation against government critics had begun even before the law was passed. In addition, she spoke of the existential threat the law is expected to pose to civil society organizations.

GD’s “Pro-Europeanism” Bluff

Asked by Steve Cohen, House Ranking Member of Helsinki Commission, about the GD government’s official claim that it still seeks the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration, Dr. Sabanadze said that given the large proportional majority of over 80 percent of citizens who support the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration, it would be “political suicide” for any political power to openly say that it is against the will of the people. She called it a “dystopian situation” when the government takes steps undermining European integration all the while claiming that its attitude and aspirations toward Western institutions have not changed. She also said Ivanishvili is positing the false choice for Georgian citizens, “a choice between a far-away prospect of European integration prospects and peace, between prosperity now and protection human rights.” “It’a devil’s bargain”, she said, calling it “a Russian playbook” and a “bluff”.

Mikheil Saakashvili’s Condition

Dr. Sabanadze said she thinks his health is improving. She said the latest judgements on ECtHR said his conditions are decent.

What More Can the U.S. Do?

Asked by U.S. Rep. Victoria Spartz what concrete steps the U.S. could take toward Georgia, Dr. Sabanadze mentioned individual, targeted sanctions, including visa bans against authorities, as well as long-term monitoring of the upcoming elections. She said: “Russia’s war against Ukraine enabled autocrats around the world to challenge democracy at home and to maximize power and think they can go unpunished” stressing the need to target specific individuals with sanctions while supporting civil society in Georgia.

Amb. Courtney also emphasized monitoring the upcoming parliamentary elections, saying: “These elections in October, if those elections are rigged in a major way, then as in Ukraine, there could be another color revolution in Georgia. We really should keep an eye on those elections.”

Ivane Chkhikvadze stressed the importance of not allowing the GD to rig the elections, continuing to support Georgian civil society, and continuing the policy of non-recognition of the occupied territories.

This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian) Русский (Russian)


Back to top button