There are concerns about how political opponents are dealt with in Georgia, but raising intensively the issue of rule of law with the Georgian authorities and the fact that they are aware of the U.S. and the EU keeping a watchful eye on these developments had “a profound effect” and “some of these concerns began to abate”, Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, said.
She was speaking before subcommittee on European affairs of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, which held on November 14 a hearing on the U.S. policies in the context of the upcoming EU Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius later this month.
In her opening remarks before the committee, Nuland noted importance of first peaceful democratic transfer of power in Georgia as a result of “truly competitive” 2012 parliamentary and 2013 presidential elections, which, she said, were “important steps forward.”
“But considerable political and economic challenges remain, such as the unresolved conflicts in the two Russian-occupied regions of Georgia; protracted displacement of people; fragile democratic institutions, the need for further strengthening of the rule of law, and an economy that requires additional focus,” said Nuland, who assumed position of the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs in September, 2013.
She said that the Vilnius summit will be “a historic moment” for Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine as the EU members will make decision whether to sign the Associations Agreement with Ukraine and to initial this treaty with Georgia and Moldova. Nuland said that Georgia and Moldova have met the requirements for initialing Association Agreements with the EU.
The issue of legal proceedings against former government officials was raised during the hearing by Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Senator James Risch, both Georgia watchers.
“We are getting mixed reports on exactly how smooth this transition is,” Senator Risch said. “There is still some angst as they move forward and some of that of course has to do with political prosecutions, which as we [with Senator Shaheen] have underscored as being not the appropriate way to do business.”
Nuland responded: “We share your concern about the way former leaders are dealt with. We have stressed to the Georgian government the importance of conducting investigations and prosecutions with full respect for due process and in transparent manner, [and importance] of avoiding any political influence on prosecutorial actions.”
She said that raising this issue before the Georgian authorities in this period when they want to initial the Association Agreement with the EU, has been “powerful lever in that conversation to remind them that it’s not only the EU that is watching, but the U.S. is also watching the way political opponents are dealt with.”
Senator Shaheen asked what kind of efforts the U.S. can look at in order to encourage “emphasis on rule of law, addressing some of the issues around imprisonment of opposition figures” and to encourage continued positive movement in Georgia.
Nuland responded that about third of USD 70 million assistance, which the United States allocated for Georgia this year, went to programs aimed at strengthening good governance, justice system and rule of law.
“The fact that we’ve been in this intensive conversation with them, the fact that they know that you are watching how they deal with political opponents, that we are and the EU is [watching] had a profound effect and we’ve seen some of these concerns began to abate in recent months,” the Assistant Secretary of State said.
Asked by Senator Shaheen about Russia’s occupation of the Georgian territories, Nuland pointed to installation of fences by the Russian troops around administrative boundary line of South Ossetia and said it was “in contravention” of Russia’s international obligations.
She said that “one bright light here” is that after Georgia completes its work on the Association Agreement and after Georgia becomes eligible for visa free travel with the EU, it will “look a whole lot more attractive” for residents of the breakaway regions to carry Georgian passports.
“I think the most potent force for changing the status quo is going to be the people of those territories themselves and the choices that they are going to make and our hope and expectation is that this association with the EU is going to change the prospects for them, change the outlook for them, they are going to see real benefits as citizens of Georgia and they are gonna be pushing for change themselves,” Nuland said, adding that the U.S. will continue working “as hard as we can to protect sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia.”