“My role is to point out what the stakes are” - Ian Kelly
19 November, 2015
“My role is to point out what the stakes are” - Ian Kelly
Exclusive interview with the Ambassador of the United States to Georgia

Quite often our American friends’ assessments of processes taking place in Georgia used to become pillars around which public opinion formed and relying on which concrete decisions were made. Accordingly, the American ambassador’s declarations regarding various relevant issues are attentively listened to by the authorities as well as the opposition and the general public. Last week Mr. Ian Kelly, the U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, visited the HQ of Palitra
Media and was pleasantly surprised, stating that he had learned quite a bit about this “bastion of free media” before and was happy to experience it from within. Within the framework of the visit, Mr. Kelly gave an exclusive interview to the Kviris Palitra newspaper about relevant issues of foreign and domestic policy of Georgia.

– Welcome, Mr. Ambassador. As far as I know you visited our country for the first time almost 40 years ago. Could you elaborate a bit on differences between Georgia back then and Georgia today?


– In 1979 I was a student of the Leningrad University. It was Brezhnev’s period. I loved Leningrad very much and used to visit Moscow as well. I had an impression that it was a powerful totalitarian system. Many Russians didn’t want to speak with me simply because I was American.
Then a Soviet tourist agency took us to Tbilisi for four days. Coming to Georgia was a flash of light for me, of sorts. It was astonishing how open-hearted Georgians were towards me as an American tourist. I was also amazed by the pride Georgians expressed in being Georgian and belonging to Georgia. In a way, they were exemplary in the Soviet Union – they identified themselves as Georgians first and Soviet citizens second. Since then I’ve returned to Georgia several times, both in good and bad periods. I was in Georgia in 1995 and it was quite bad due to electricity shortages, lots of internally displaced people and dangerous streets. My next visit was in 2012 and again it was like a flash of light for me because of the progress I saw.

– The majority of our people hold optimistic views on NATO Warsaw Summit, expecting Georgia to make considerable steps towards Euro-Atlantic integration. Therefore, hearing your prognosis regarding our country’s expectations would be very interesting for us.

– Our position on Georgia’s integration into NATO has always remained consistent and strong. We support Georgia’s integration, and it’s not just words. I think that in Warsaw, it will be important to emphasize everything that Georgia has done for NATO and NATO has done for Georgia. My challenge is to help you maintain hope – I strongly believe that Georgia has a Euro-Atlantic future. The difficulty is that NATO is an Alliance of 28 countries and the decision is made through consensus. Real state of affairs is to be stressed in Warsaw. A strong political declaration can be made at the summit to note the progress made by Georgia recently. Inter alia, the opening of the Training and Assessment center in Georgia is also important.

– As declared by some experts, in case if – as you say – no strong declaration is made or no concrete steps are taken towards MAP, this will cause frustration and disappointment in the West among a considerable part of Georgian population and might we witness undesirable processes occurring as a result?


– From the point of view of strength, Georgia is the second contributor to the Afghanistan Peace Mission. Georgians have made real sacrifices for NATO membership. I fully understand such frustration, if there is any. At the same time, Georgia has many friends. America always affirms its strong support to Georgia. We shouldn’t forget that the strength of NATO is in its unity, and when making a concrete decision, you need consent of 28 countries to ensure consensus. We have to confess that sometimes it’s difficult to get 28 votes, but America will stay a strong supporter of Georgia in the future regardless. Georgia has other friends as well, especially in the east wing of NATO. They will assist your country in achieving the desired goal.

– We can’t become a NATO member country without democracy, free media and rule of law. How would you assess the degree of democracy in Georgia?

– I have only been here for less than two months, but I feel very confident to say that Georgia is a shining beacon of pluralism, freedom of speech and judiciary which has made tremendous strides to become fully independent, dispassionate and objective. Hillary Clinton, my former boss, used to and probably still says that democracy is not a goal and not a state of perfection - democracy is a process.

– Now let’s talk about concrete issues. The legal process around Rustavi 2 TV has caused great commotion. A significant part of the opposition claims that the process is politicized, while the authorities and many people say that it is the case of private litigation and the powers that be have no business getting involved. At the same time we all remember the recent history and how the processes were developing around Rustavi 2. In your opinion, how should people ascertain whether the events unfolding around Rustavi 2 are a political process or private litigation?

“I have 30 years of diplomatic experience and during this entire period I wished for only one job – one that would put me on the battlefield to protect sovereignty and independence of a country that experiences interference from the northern neighbor. This was the only wish I had”


– I am a diplomat. I am not a voter or a taxpayer in your country. It is not for me to pronounce the legality or legal merits of any court case. However, this does not mean that I don’t have an opinion about this issue. I think that my role is simply to point out what the stakes are and what the possible implications would be if in the election year the leading opposition television station suddenly changes its editorial management. I mean that if the opposition loses access to this TV station, or if the channel goes from being highly critical to being neutral or, even worse – pro-governmental, this will cast doubt on whether Georgia has a level playing field.

“If the government sees that violence is planned in whatever was said in Odessa and Tbilisi, then it has the responsibility to protect people”


– Of course, nobody denies that independent media and criticism are indispensible for the country’s development, but people remember quite well the National Movement party’s attitude towards the media. We also know that the current head of Rustavi 2 is former Deputy General Prosecutor and former Minister of Justice too. Hence, a considerable part of people thinks that Rustavi 2 is serving the National Movement’s interests… This point of view is buttressed by the recently published audio recordings in which the Governor of Odessa directly talks with the TV company’s director general about setting up barricades, smashing faces, bloodshed and so on.


“Georgia is a shining beacon of freedom of speech and judiciary.”

“The TV channels we have in America… After watching them, I almost get heart attacks.”


– I see, but they still have the right to air the points of view that may express the National Movement’s interests. Let me make a comparison. The TV channels we have in America… After watching them, I almost have a heart attack. But the answer to this is still not about changing these channels’ management – it is about ensuring open competition. As for the information gained as a result of eavesdropping, it’s difficult to say how real it is.

– But both sides confirmed its authenticity from the very beginning…


– I understand; spreading of declarations containing appeals to violence is inadmissible. There no place for it in democratic society. It is categorically unacceptable. If the government sees that violence is planned in whatever was said in Odessa and Tbilisi, then it has the responsibility to protect people. But silencing TV with whatever means is not the way out. I’d like to point out plainly – to both the government as well as the opposition representatives - that elections are the key point here. Everybody should pay attention to one thing – ensuring the elections are held in a just and legitimate environment. They should be perceived as a platform at which it is possible to voice and hear any points of view.

– Let’s touch upon other issues. Russia continues its illegal actions on the occupied territories, including moving barbed wire fences deeper inside our territory or kidnapping people. Do you think Georgian authorities are currently acting properly? If not, what advice could you give them? What do our foreign partners do to curb similar actions?


– It’s very important that the international community speaks in one voice about such violations, about the lack of fulfillment of the ceasefire agreement where it is written in black and white that the Russian troops had to retreat back to their former positions. But Russia has not done it. This is the priority we are working on. Regarding the Georgian government and its approach – I really admire the Georgian government’s restraint and pragmatism and I think that an important aspect of international affairs is knowing how to pick your fights. The U.S. is actively involved in the Geneva format. I give the Georgian government a lot of credit for opening a channel with Russia. Zurab Abashidze is a very thoughtful and pragmatic diplomat. Thus, the existing formats – the Geneva negotiations and the Abashidze-Karasin channel – make it possible to more actively discuss relevant issues. I’d also like to positively assess the Georgian government’s reintegration policy.

– Given the background we just discussed, negotiations between our authorities and Gazprom have caused an uproar. The authorities assure us that this will create a more competitive environment in the country, but the opposition maintains that this is an attempt to replace Azerbaijani gas with its Russian counterpart, essentially binding Georgia to Russia and leaving it vulnerable to its well-known practice of using energy resources as a political lever.

– Georgia should avoid giving another country important leverage over its energy sources. There are a few important issues here, the first one being diversification of energy sources, and I think Georgian government is working on that. It’s important for the government to ensure transparency of its relations with SOCAR or Gazprom. We should keep in mind that the East-West corridor is crucial both for Georgia’s economic future and also for energy security of all the countries it connects, from Central Asia to Europe. We want to ensure that no country is damaged by this corridor. I am not an expert on gas, but I think that the volume of gas that you are negotiating with Gazprom would not cause Georgia any damage.

Author: Giorgi Kvitashvili
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