With his tenure in Georgia ending in a matter of weeks, Ambassador Bass sat down for a parting interview with Tabula. This time, he talked about the development of U.S.-Georgia relations in recent years and the challenges that Georgia currently faces.
Can you summarize briefly U.S.-Georgia relations during the past three years?
It is a great opening question, and I am delighted to get the chance to talk to you and by extension to your readers. As I conclude my official tenure – although I very much expect to be back to Georgia in the future – I continue to be very interested in what goes on here.
I guess the way I’d summarize it is, I think that we both strengthened and deepened the relationship over the last three years – whether it’s defense cooperation; whether it’s some assistance programming; whether it’s work to promote Georgian exports to the United States. The latter is a pretty good but unusual thing for the U.S. government to do. Normally, we are in the business of promoting our own exports overseas.
Also, I think the twentieth anniversary of U.S.-Georgia relations this year has given us an opportunity to capture for a lot of people the breadth of contact between not only the two governments, but the two societies, through all kinds of educational institutions, through the many alumni of high school and university programs in the States.
So I think the relationship is in really good shape, and I think that there are some really good foundations for further growth and development in deepening the relationship going forward.
What has changed? Are there any fundamental differences between this Administration and the previous one with regard to Georgia?
I really don’t think so. We talked about it when I first arrived and there was still a lot of nervousness and anxiety in the Georgian society about what the so-called “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations would mean for this country. There was the concern that it would be at the expense of our commitment to this country and its people and some of our fundamental principles, most notably the one that people should be able to choose their own futures in this neighborhood.
I think what we’ve seen in these last three years is that there really has not been that transactional approach to the reset. We’ve simply focused on those areas that we thought were important to make progress with the Russian government, although we have also held very strongly to our principles and had some very heated disagreements with the Russians – sometimes in public; more often I’d say behind closed doors – and there has been a respective use of the situation in Georgia.
Where does the reset policy stand now, especially bearing in mind Russia-Iran and Russia-Syria relations?
We are still continuing to work through that basic optic of the principal philosophy that was behind it at the outset. We’re going to continue to try to work with the Russian government in those areas where we believe it’s in our interest and also in Russia’s interest to try to collaborate. But we are not going to pull our punches, if you will, or shy away from expressing our concerns and our position in those areas where there is a disagreement. I think you saw it quite clearly in the public expressions from Washington about the conductof the last Russian elections and particularly in what [U.S. State] Secretary [Hillary] Clinton had to say at the time.
A couple of weeks ago at the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank, you said that the major challenge Georgia faces is whether it can continue to modernize, develop its economy and strengthen its democratic culture simultaneously. I think no one would argue about that. But can you think of some objective reasons, inside or outside the country, which jeopardize this process?
What I was referring to is the tendency – and not only in Georgia, but in some other countries that are facing real tough challenges of modernizing infrastructure, developing economy, reducing unemployment and trying to show big results quickly for citizens on the issues that matter most to them – sometimes with those pressures from the electorate, there is a temptation for people to say, “Look, we don’t have time for long protracted debate in the Parliament about these issues. We need to move quickly; we don’t have time to involve the community in a discussion about the pros and cons of every issue.”
What I was trying to capture is that such an approach comes at a cost to development of democratic institutions. Too many people in Georgia, and in many other places, feel like governance is something that is done to them as opposed to something that involves them.
I think that, apart from the challenges that come from living in this neighborhood, it is important in the future to increase the percentage of people who feel that they have a direct role in decisions affecting their communities on more than just an election day. It will be important for Georgia to be fully successful in going forward and fully realize its aspirations.
What role does Georgia’s security issue have in the process of democratization?
I think it’s fair to say that perceptions or feelings of insecurity undoubtedly retard the development in some respects. No one makes good decisions when they are afraid. It’s very hard to look at things objectively, to do new cost-benefit analysis, to think though the possible consequences when you are afraid. And that’s not to overly dramatize the situation of today. But, clearly, people are still concerned about the potential of renewed conflict and the unresolved status of the territories. And that plays a role in shaping perceptions about what the major challenges are going forward and what ways are best to try to address them.
I think, in that regard, the government – not just government, but government, media, everyone in the society who is participating in these public discussions and debates – has an obligation to try not to spin people, but to try to address issues, particular instances, objectively and with a clear eye to their potential for real impact on the situation.
You noted correctly that often times the government does not devote enough time to public debate of this or that issue. In this regard, I would recall a development a year ago when the Parliament made a decision on the status of religious minorities in Georgia. The government was reproached back then for not allocating sufficient time to publicly debating that issue. It was, however, not difficult to guess that ample time would have been exploited by opponents in order to consolidate a not-very-liberal segment of the Georgian society and to block that very useful initiative. What other ways – save quick decision-making – do you see on such occasions?
It’s a great question. And you have probably identified one of the areas where there is most clearly dynamic tension between realizing an ideal and a good objective issue where there needs to be important forward progress. As we said at that time, and we will say it again, we thought that passage of that legislation was a really important constructive step in acknowledging the legitimacy of other faiths and confessions practiced by many of the citizens of this country.
The challenge is to do that, I think, in a way where you can have a legitimate public debate about it, but to do it in a way that does not inflame tensions or end up with people promulgating or advocating violence to try to prevent legislation from being passed. You know partly that is a function of evolutions in Georgian democratic culture and the obligation that the opponents of particular aspects – whether it’s legislation; whether it’s overall policy direction – the obligations they have to conduct themselves with respect for an opponent’s viewpoint, even if they disagree with it, and not to advocate violence as a solution.
I think some of the activities around the first gay pride march in Tbilisi is another great example of a case in which – look, you may not agree with those citizens wanting to be out on the street advocating for their basic human rights regardless of their sexual orientation – you can disagree with that, but from my perspective, our [American] perspective, it’s unacceptable to advocate violence to suppress their right to be heard and their right to be fully productive citizens in this society.
So, to come back to your original question – where’s the balance? – I think it depends on the issue. Looking back on that particular legislative act, I was a little disappointed with some voices in society who chose only to focus on the narrow issue of how the legislation was passed, without commenting more broadly on its significance to overall democratic development.
The topic of money and politics has turned into a very hot issue in Georgia. The United States has a far longer history of regulating campaign financing. From your perspective, what is the link between money and politics?
I’d say from our perspective it continues to be a matter of strong debate and strongly held views in the Unites States, with many people in the States believing that campaign donations, financing political campaigns, promoting a particular point of view in an election season are forms of free speech. And that’s certainly what our highest court has ruled. There are a lot of other people in the States who disagree with [that U.S. Supreme] Court decision, who disagree with that perspective and believe that unregulated finance has the corrosive effect of warping the tone and tenor of political debate.
From my perspective, it’s an issue that every society has to address within its own context. But I think it’s a legitimate question for government to address. And it’s a legitimate question to ask about the ability of any individual, any organization, any small group of people, to have a disproportionate influence on a political process, on political outcome, on an election, simply by virtue of the size of their bank account.
How does that play out currently? Well, I think part of the challenge here in Georgia right now, or around this issue, is the quick change from a very different model that existed previously to the current model of some pretty tight restrictions. I think that one of the things that we’ve voiced some concerns about, as have others, is that even as this new system has been put in place and administered, it’s important that it not be utilized in a disproportionate or unfair manner to curb political speech and the activity by people, by any particular political organization. But, also importantly, [it should] not have the effect of cementing in place some structural competitive advantages that the ruling party may have by virtue of its prior dominance.
To go back to your speech at the Atlantic Council, you noted there that Georgia is more inclined toward mystical reliance on others’ opinions and beliefs than on fact-based discussion. Can you please elaborate on that?
Sure. I often think and – this has been a fear of a lot of my perspective in conversations with you and others about the state of journalism in Georgia and about media and the quality of the discourse that’s available to the citizens through the media – I am always struck by the extent to which on any given topic the ration of information on the subject being discussed versus the opinion about the subject is very disproportionate. There are often very few facts, but there are a lot of strongly held views about the matter. And I find that often citizens don’t have enough information to form their own opinion, to look at the situation themselves.
More broadly in this context, what I was getting at with that remark [to the Atlantic Council] was a reflection of discussions I’ve had with a number of people across the society – some inside the government, some outside the government – who have collectively expressed to me their belief that one of the biggest challenges that Georgia faces in its next phase of development is creating through its educational system a set of skills within the graduates of high school or university which enables them to be competitive in a global economy. And a lot of that has to do with their ability to think and reason for themselves and take in the facts of a certain situation and do a cost-benefit analysis and to think about possible alternatives and to think though a problem, rather than jumping to a conclusion or forming an opinion or a firmly held judgment based on a very, very narrow slice of information.
Talking about mystification, let me ask you a rather weird question. Some people tend to depict U.S. Ambassadors, and the U.S. in general, as something almighty. There are constant talks that the U.S. staged the Rose Revolution; it brought Mikheil Saakashvili to power and, therefore, it must take him away. Leaving aside jokes, many people, including politicians, do believe that whatever happens here is decided in the U.S. What is your take on that?
My sense is that it reflects, first, a bit of Georgia’s long history, where a lot of what has happened in this country, in this geographic space before it was an independent country, was decided somewhere else – to the extent that your history features lots of large foreign powers exerting [control], either directly because they have invaded or occupied the country or have been offshore, if you will, exerting a disproportionate influence on what happens here. So, for a lot of people, they think that it’s a natural progression.
I would argue that I think our relationship is very different from any of those past large foreign presences that have been interested in this country and trying to support its people, primarily because, frankly, it is a partnership. It is a relationship between two governments, first and foremost, but also between two countries.
We provide advice and perspective and, in many respects, technical assistance, some financial assistance, to help [Georgians] realize their goals. Some of those people are in government; some of those people are in universities; some of those people are in the private sector. But it’s always with an appreciation that these are Georgians and Georgian decisions to be made.
So the folks who think that we are busy engineering the next phase of Georgia’s political revolution in Washington, that’s just simply not the case.
At the Atlantic Council, you voiced your fears that ethnic and religious chauvinism could potentially be employed in the election campaign ahead of October polls. What exactly do you mean? And also, have you shared your fear with the political parties concerned?
I will start with the second half of your question: The United States has shown in any number of cases, on any number of issues, a very high degree of consistency between what we say publicly and what we say privately. So the answer is, of course, we talk about it to a variety of people, without getting into the details of any specific conversation.
Now, about the first half of the question: The debate over the degree to which this or that change, development or economic activity is consistent with Georgia’s heritage and traditions is legitimate. But I hope it would not get into a discussion of what it means to be a Georgian, a Georgian citizen, where the answer to that question being advocated by some political actors is, to be a full member of this society, you must be ethic Georgian and a believer of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Both of those are obviously important dimensions to this society, and we have a great deal of respect for the church and its role in the society. But it’s also clear to us that there are a number of other folks, citizens from different ethnic backgrounds, who have different confessions that they adhere to.
I think in any modern, democratic Western society you see an acknowledgment that citizenship is more than simply a question of ethnicity and faith.
Current U.S. Administration officials often underline the importance of labor rights and trade unions when they visit Georgia. It leaves us with an impression that the U.S. government is pressing Georgia on something that is not quite embraced by the American electorate itself. The recent story of Wisconsin trade unions is a good example…
Well, our approach on this issue is not specific to a particular union or its professed policy or what we would like to see out of its relationship with the employers. Our focus on this issue is about basic labor rights and, in this regard, most of the international community believes that Georgia has not developed basic standards that virtually every other country in the world has in place for the protection of the rights of employees. I think employees must have the right to have recourse when they are fired and to understand why they have been fired and to ensure that simply because they would like to organize or look at organizing, to talk to their employers about basic conditions, quality, conditions of work, if you will, that they will not get fired simply by virtue of that provision.
Now, it’s true that the Georgian Labor Code indicates clearly that people cannot be fired simply for organizing. But it is also true that employers can fire anybody at any time without any reason, provided that they provide a fixed amount of compensation. Those two provisions appear to us to be contradictory.
So what we are really talking about is a set of core labor standards as opposed to a specific set of very detailed provisions related to a specific labor movement in Georgia.
So that means that the opinion that liberal labor regulations help alleviate unemployment does not seem plausible to you?
Well, I think that, to a certain extent, it is a false argument because, for the longer term for Georgia’s development, I do not think this country wants the kind of employers who are attracted primarily by the absence of any labor protections. It has, I think, over time a potentially corrosive impact on perceptions of government as well because [labor standards are] protecting citizens in some basic ways. As an example, you know mine safety is an issue in a lot of places in the world and no one likes to see mining accidents happen. It seems reasonable to me that if employees of a mine want to get together and talk with an employer about unsafe conditions in the mine, they should be able to do that without being afraid of losing their jobs.
You have repeatedly expressed hope that the current elections would focus on issues that matter to people the most rather than on contesting the legitimacy of the process. But how realistic is your hope? At a press conference on 28 June, you said that the United States will fund the U.S. National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute to observe forthcoming elections in Georgia. The major opposition political player, Bidzina Ivanishvili, does not trust those organizations, calling them [newly appointed Prime Minister] “Vano Merabishvili’s pet organizations.” Just recently, the largest opposition coalition, Georgian Dream, addressed the U.S. Government [requesting that] these organizations not be allowed to conduct polls. How do you imagine a healthy process under such circumstances?
I think it still is very possible. I think it depends on the extent to which, again, parties choose over the next three and a half month or so to focus on the issues that matter to voters and the extent to which they can present their proposals of how they would address these issues and the extent to which the election is in part a debate about what government has done or not done in addressing the issues that matter to voters.
Every electoral system can be modified and tweaked and improved. And, you know, we are still constantly working on our own electoral system.
We would have liked to have seen more changes in the Electoral Code than ultimately resulted, but, generally speaking, we think this Electoral Code is an improvement over the past in terms of providing opportunities for people to compete.
I think – notwithstanding some specific instances in which people may have legitimate concerns about individual incidents curbing their ability to organize or to be present in their communities, or wherever it is, without fear or being intimidated by law enforcement or an activist from another party, any of those kinds of things – there are going to be those incidents probably, hopefully not very many. But, notwithstanding that, I think it is important that those pieces be kept in perspective in the context of the overall environment and that the election be about the issues and the differences between the parties, as opposed to an election and a referendum on the system itself.
What are the most, not necessarily positive, but most remarkable memories of your Georgian mission?
Well, it is probably too early to ask me that because I am still absorbing and thinking about my time here. For me, these experiences, this career I have, ultimately always comes back to people. And so, the most salient memories for me are the many people I have met and interacted with, starting from the President, but equally the people I meet in places like Ushguli, Khaishi and some other small villages in Svaneti as I am out hiking, or – I think, most importantly – the students I meet when I go to schools and see the civic education clubs where kids are interested in trying to make a difference in their own communities and learning the tools and skills of how they can do that.
These young people give me a lot of optimism about this country’s future because I think, as I mentioned in another part of my remarks to the Atlantic Council, I really do think a mental revolution is taking place in this country and I think it is a really important foundation for its future success.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 108, published 9 July 2012.