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Outgoing US Ambassador delivers his assessment of Georgia

By Ernest Petrosyan
Monday, June 18
John Bass, the US Ambassador to Georgia, delivered a multi-faceted speech at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank on June 13. During the speech he touched on Georgia’s present and future perspectives, as well as outlined some of the major challenges Georgia currently faces.

The main massage of Ambassador Bass, whose three-year tenancy in Georgia has come to the end, said that the country’s modernization and economic development efforts should go hand-in-hand with democratic development since all three factors are crucial for Georgia’s long-term success.

Contrasting the issues of modernization and democratization, Ambassador Bass noted that that Georgia had nonetheless made progress in the development of democratic institutions. However, in recent years, more efforts have been made in the modernization of the country rather than on continued democratic reform.

“I think it’s fair to say that there has been more energy in recent past on modernizing infrastructure, modernizing institutions, modernizing and making more effective the delivery of services, as opposed to an equivalent amount of energy going into strengthening some of the bones of democratic institutions and cultures,” Ambassador Bass remarked. The Ambassador also pointed to recent polling data, which reveals that the public place a high priority on issues related to unemployment, economic development, the reintegration of territories and the rehabilitation of infrastructure rather than the strengthening of democratic institutions.

Georgia continues to receive and merit a disproportional amount of interest, attention and investment from the United States, as it continues to be at a head of the class in the region and among post-Soviet states in strengthening its democracy.

“I think that the challenge for the next period in Georgia’s development is whether this country can continue to modernize, develop its economy and strengthen its democratic culture simultaneously, because all three [of these issues] are important to its long-term success,” Bass said

Referring to the electoral environment, Bass said that “elements are in place” for these elections to be a big step forward.

“Unfortunately too much energy up to this point has been focused on the process itself and the playing field; there are certainly some areas where we would like to see some additional improvements,” he said

“One of the challenges for this period is ensuring [that] the environment is competitive enough so that people focus more on contesting the elections themselves rather than on contesting the legitimacy of the process. At this point in time, frankly, I do not see a landscape that requires the majority of effort to be put on the latter,” Bass said.

He added that some additional improvements were required, “broadly speaking there is a landscape in place which enables the kind of competitive election that Georgians would like to see,” said Bass.

Bass also noted that the introduction of campaign finance restrictions after Ivanishvili's entry in politics. Ivanishvili's personal wealth is larger than the Georgia's GDP.

“Our concern continues to be whether these provisions are used in a way that restricts, curbs, or suppresses political speech and legitimate political activity and the manner in which they are implemented serves to have a chilling on political organization,” he said, adding that the US was encouraging the state audit agency, which is in charge of monitoring parties’ finances, to be more transparent and to have a clear set of guidelines”

He noted he was not aware of the details of a recently imposed multi-million lari fine on Ivanishvili and was not able to make a comment.

The US Ambassador expressed concern over access to information, as those who live outside large cities and “don’t have access to cable providers who carry pro-opposition channels are relying on major terrestrial broadcasters, who tend to have a pro-government orientation."

“I think it is legitimate to express a concern that these voters do not have access to a wide range of information,” Ambassador said, expressing hope that the progress on this issue would be sooner rather than later.

“Too many people have to rely on single sources of information or try to piece together what is happening from a range of sources of information, each of which has a very focused, concentrated point of view, and does not consider alternate facts and alternative opinions,” he said.

He described the first one as the “challenge of promoting fact-based reality versus somewhat mystical reliance on opinion

“I generally share that characterization. There is still too much reliance on a fervently held belief or opinion that is not grounded in objective data,” Bass said, adding that "there are an awful lot of people talking past each other."

He said that extent to which it was happening in Georgia represented a long-term detriment to further democratic development.

As a consequence, Bass continued, there is a “comparative absence of tolerance” and respect for divergent viewpoints whether political or based on ethnicity and religion

“There are too many people still in society that are looking to define themselves by their differences and to promote their vision in a way which does not include enough room for others,” Bass said

The Ambassador pointed out that since the collapse of the Soviet Union in defining what it means to be Georgian, some people chose the answer of being ethnically Georgian and adherent to Orthodox faith.

“That does not leave very much room for many other Georgian citizens who are either from another ethnic group or embracing another faith,” Bass said, adding that Georgia’s current government “deserves a great deal of credit” for promoting tolerance and a vision that enables all Georgians, regardless of their ethnicity and faith, to participate in society equally.

He also noted, without going into details, that there were “clearly some hints” and “a danger that an ethnic chauvinism or religious chauvinism” might potentially be employed in the election campaign ahead of the October parliamentary elections.

Bass also remarked on Russian-Georgian relations citing the public approach. He explained said that the majority of the Georgian population wanted to see good relations with Russia, but not at the expense of losing territories.

“That is an ongoing challenge that I would hope some of the leadership in Moscow over time will become a bit more sensitive to and attune to, in terms of understanding, their neighbor. I think there is a better understanding these days in Georgia of what is going on in Russia, than there is an understanding of what is really happening in Georgia by Russians,” Bass said expressing hope that Georgia’s decision to lift the visa regime for Russian citizens would break down those barriers.”

“I do not see a lot of room for the relationship to improve fundamentally until we get through the next electoral cycle in Georgia and hopefully the Russian government realizes that the President [Saakashvili] in his approach to relations with Russia has been reflecting public opinion to a large degree and not simply creating it out of whole cloth,” he said.

Bass said that the absence of a common memory and experience between new generations living in Georgia and in its breakaway regions was also a serious challenge on Tbilisi’s path of reintegration.

He said that the issue of fostering increased engagement and interaction across the administrative boundary lines was “not something we talk a great deal about publicly, but that does not mean that we are not talking and working on it privately behind the scenes.

With regard to economic growth and the business climate, Bass noted that the recent economic growth has not translated into corresponding increases in employment and not many people in rural areas have benefited this growth.

He said that the increase in Georgia’s economic growth and development to broader segments of the Georgian society was among the major challenges for the country.

“A corollary to that challenge is the creation of a more predictable business and investment climate for all businesses, but particularly for those investors seeking to enter the market from outside Georgia,” he said

He said there was a “dichotomy” between impressive reforms of recent years and areas where there had been less progress.

Predictability and dispute resolution mechanisms, as well as the strengthening of intellectual property rights were those two areas in which, he said, potential or actual investors thought more progress was needed.