March 23, 2021

Ranking Member Risch Remarks at Subcommittee Hearing on Bolstering Democracy in Georgia

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today gave remarks at a subcommittee hearing on bolstering democracy in Georgia. The subcommittee heard witness testimony from Mr. George Kent, deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs at the Department of State, and Ms. Kara McDonald, deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the Department of State.

Ranking Member Risch gave the following remarks:

“Senator Shaheen and I have talked about this issue at length. There’s no daylight between us, I don’t believe, on this issue starting from the time we went there in fall of 2012 to observe their elections.

“Since Georgia’s independence in 1991, there’s been quite a bit of progress in building democracy and implementing market-based economic reforms. They’ve done this despite Russia’s illegal occupation of a fifth of its territory since 2008. Georgia has also been a reliable U.S. security partner with ambitions to join the EU and NATO.

“A lot of us on both sides have been strong supporters of Georgia for many years. It’s already been mentioned, Senator Shaheen and I travelled there in 2012, and I have to tell you that I was very impressed and really believed that the country was doing to be off to a roaring start.

“We had the opportunity to go into the camps, the real camps of both sides, the morning after the election, both the losing side and the winning side, and met with the heads of the parties, Mr. Saakashvili and Mr. Ivanishvili. I’ve been in 36 elections myself, I’ve been in camps the morning after of both winners and losers, of elections on all sides, from president on down.

“And I have to tell you that the feeling in both of those camps was exactly like in America. The winners felt as winners. The losers felt as losers. We had a very candid conversation with them. They were making some brash statements at that time which happens the morning after elections, particularly when you’ve been up all night.

“But in any event, after listening to the comments I thought, “I don’t know about this”. But shortly after that, I became very optimistic because the two sides had agreed to meet, as we had urged them and suggested. So we felt good as the thing took off.

“Then, as time went on, we were a little disillusioned as there were more and more political prosecutions. And again, we urged, as best we could, that that wasn’t the way forward.

“In addition to that, and unfortunately in the past few years, we’ve watched the country suffer from democratic backsliding. And it’s really unfortunate because the country deserves better. It’s in a unique position to be able to pull itself away from its history with the USSR. And what’s going on now, of course, is increasing oligarch influence over the judiciary, media, and much of political life.

“Responsibility for the current crisis facing Georgia, the culmination of several years of increased tensions and failed reforms, is shared by all sides, I believe. The two main political parties, and their leaders, must realize their duty to their country and move past their disagreements.

“I’ll take it just a very short period of time and tell the story of when we met with Mr. Saakashvili. He was the first one we met with who had lost, and he was insistent that he wasn’t going to assist with the transition and what have you. And I asked him if he had ever heard of George Washington and he said yes he had, everyone’s heard of George Washington.

“Well he was our first president, as you know. And I said, 200 years from now, with this election being the first open, fair, and free election, every child in Georgia will read about you, as the first president to go through this election. How do you want them to remember you? Like George Washington? Or like someone who was a sore loser and thought more of themselves than the country.

“He listened carefully, didn’t he Jeanne, to that speech. So anyway, again, we felt good about that.

“I do want to emphasize that the party of government, Georgian Dream, bears a special responsibility for leading Georgia out of this crisis. This conflict only hurts the country and its people and opens the door for Russia.

“I know our ambassador in Tbilisi, Kelly Degnan, and the embassy team have been working tirelessly to facilitate a negotiated solution between the two parties. And I’m very appreciative of their efforts, though I understand there’s been a little slippage backwards. I urge them to continue, and I would certainly urge Georgia Dream and the government to negotiate in good faith and try to get through this.

“Georgia is at a critical moment. If it cannot make its democracy work now, I don’t know when it can. It will lose its opportunity to join the Euro-Atlantic institutions, Georgia’s political leaders must negotiate an end to this current crisis and agree to needed reforms to improve Georgia’s future.”

These remarks have been lightly edited for clarity. Witness testimony is available on foreign.senate.gov.

###