Kurt Volker about 20th of June: People Can’t Forget That
20 June, 2020
Given that one year has passed since June 20, 2019, it is interesting to see how the West assesses the developments in Georgia during this one year and what expectations it has for the October parliamentary elections.
US diplomat, former US special envoy to Ukraine and a former NATO envoy, Kurt Volker, spoke exclusively to Georgian Journal about the changes in Georgia after 20th of June, relations between the West and Georgia, possible NATO membership and other issues.

- Exactly one
year ago, on 20th of June, Russian deputy, Sergey Gavrilov took a seat of Georgian Parliament’s speaker, and then, Georgian government used tear gas and rubber bullets against protestors. We remember the political situation after that night, and the protests with different demands. Do you think we can say that day and the consequent protests had results and what changed in this one year?

- Several things about that. First off, it’s a tragedy that what were peaceful protests initially became more violent in its efforts to storm the parliament, and the police reacted violently, they fired rubber bullets directly at the crowd. It’s a tragedy because Russia’s aggression against Georgia, its occupation of the part of the territory, and even the actions of those members of the Duma, are things that would unite all Georgians. All Georgians agree that this is unacceptable and Georgians need to stand together in the face of Russian aggression. So the fact that it became something that was a fight really between the government and the protestors, it’s a shame, it’s a tragedy and it led to ongoing protests and demonstrations, that then turned more against government than against the Russians. In the end, it’s a serious loss for the people who lost their eyesight, or were wounded in these demonstrations. People can’t forget that. But the bright spot in all this it did lead to some important reforms. Initially, the government promised major reforms to the electoral system, they walked that back a little bit, but in the March 8th agreement, that was reached between the government and opposition, you do have a basis for agreement between the government and opposition on reforms of the electoral system and the path for free and fair elections this October. And that’s critically important, I think what needs to happen now is for all sides to honor that agreement faithfully.

- Every time, Western officials, when speaking about Georgian developments, have stricter tone. The report of 13 congressmen said: ‘Bidzina Ivanishvili, the richest man in Georgia, is a close ally of Putin and involved in destabilising Georgia on Russia’s behalf.’ Does it seem to you that he and Georgian government make decisions that would be desired by Russia?

- I spoke with the authors of that report and I’d say that it’s a report that people in Georgia should pay attention to. Because it reflects the views of a number of Republican Congressmen. It doesn’t reflect the views of the entire Congress, and it’s not going to be turned into legislation. Also, there are some mistakes in the report as well. I think that Mr. Ivanishvili is obviously, critically important and powerful player within Georgia, but I think he is much more independent in the way he handles things than, for example, other person who is mentioned in the report – Medvedchuk, who’s a parliamentarian in Ukraine, Putin is the godfather of his children and he really represents Putin’s interest in Ukraine. I don’t think you can compare the roles of Mr. Ivanishvili and Mr. Medvedchuk.

- Republican Congressman Don Bacon commented on the document, saying that he did not write this part of the document and that technical experts were hired to do so. So, to what extent do experts participate in writing this kind of documents and does Mr. Bacon’s statement mean the congressmen who signed the document might not agree with the whole content?

- All reports in the Congress and Senate are written by stuff, that’s what the stuff members are there for, they are hired, they work for the congressmen, they work for committees, and everything is produced by stuff members. These are the experts that we are talking about. Second, just because the report comes out that congressmen or senators sign on to, it doesn’t mean they are endorsing every word. This is a long document about a republican national security strategy, and they wanted to articulate position that is rather forceful in pushing back on Russia and adopting a very strong American leadership role in the world – that’s what the document is trying to do. I wouldn’t ignore the document simply because it does reflect the view of a number of the members of Congress, also, wouldn’t expect the document to be translated into any kind of legislation.

- Speaking about this, US Ambassador to Georgia, Kelly Degnan also said that this is not official US position. But, in general, with different letters and statements made by Congressmen and the Members of European Parliament, there is impression that Western trust towards Georgia has changed lately. Do you agree with this and what was the main moment, or issue, that made them start to show concern so strongly?

- You know, I would turn it around and I would say that I think what we see from the US, we see from Europe, is a great degree of commitment and aspirations for Georgia. People support Georgia, they want to see Georgia succeed as a country politically, economically, they support Georgia’s security, and these elections, that will take place in October, are terribly important for the country and for Georgia’s relationship with the West. So I think people are expressing their concerns out of hope and aspiration that Georgia is indeed successful. Why more now? I’d say that, as you brought up in the beginning of our conversation, as a result of those protests last summer, there was a real flare up between the government and the opposition, and it seemed to be moving towards resolution. Then, it came apart again, and then, with the agreement on March 8th it seems to be back together again, and there is a sense that it’s critically important now that both the government and the opposition stick to that agreement, mend the electoral system, participate fully in Georgia’s democracy and make these elections a success.

- If the pre-election and election process doesn’t go in accordance with the Western values, what should Georgian government expect – stricter statements, or measures, such as sanctions. maybe?

- I think what you’ll find is that Georgia will have a lost opportunity, which would be tragic for the people of Georgia. There is an opportunity for Georgia to continue enhancing its relationship with the EU, with NATO, with US, it has been on this trajectory for years and years over several administrations in Georgia. But I think the risk that Georgia runs is that people from the outside will look at the country and say, ah, it’s not ready, it’s not a mature democracy, they are not ready for NATO, they are not ready for the EU, they still don’t get it. And, as a result, there’s no incentive, there’s no reason for these countries and institutions to continue their outreach to Georgia. So it would be a huge missed opportunity.

- Georgian opposition points out that there are political prisoners, but government denies that the country has “political prisoners” at all. How does it look from your point of view – do we have political prisoners?

- I wouldn’t want to weigh in on this, because I know that is exactly a point of disagreement between the government and opposition. The government says there are none, the opposition says that yes, indeed, there are political prisoners, the government goes ahead and releases those people anyway, while denying they are political prisoners. So, I understand the ambiguity that people are playing with. What I think is important is that the judiciary system needs to be fair, impartial, apply the rule of law and not be used for political means. Everybody in Georgia, both government and opposition need to reaffirm their commitment to impartiality in the judiciary, not using it for political purposes, and then using elections as a way of addressing political differences.

- In February, you published “correct version” of your remarks about Russian-Georgian August war, that Putin wanted to block Georgia’s transatlantic integration, he was angered by rhetoric, but Russian aggression had its own causes. Do you think that even nowadays, those own causes remain the same, or did they change even slightly? Or, did the means change and they don’t even need to occupy territories to achieve their goals?

- Well, that’s an excellent question, thank you for asking this. My view is that Russia is not achieving any goals by occupying Georgian territory. That is costly for Russia, it has created some weak client territories that it calls states, it is very disruptive for the life of Georgia, but it is not holding Georgia back. It is not holding back the system politically, it’s vibrant democracy, it’s not holding it back in the relationship with Europe. I’ve argued that NATO should be open to take in Georgia even while the territories remain occupied, simply by having a no use of force pledge concerning the territories, supporting the peaceful integration of territories. On the other hand, I also do not see any change in president Putin’s or Russia’s position about the occupation, and that applies to Georgia, to Ukraine, to Moldova. Russia is still seeking to use the occupation of these territories as a way of putting a pressure on those countries and trying to create the distance from them and the rest of the Europe. I don’t think it’s working, but I think that is still the policy of Russia.

- By different means, I also meant, maybe the means of hybrid warfare?

- Yes, I think that if you compare from 2008 where there was regular Russian armed forces rolling into Georgian territory, what they did in Ukraine was more soft. They used special forces and intelligent forces, unmarked voluntary personnel to see the key assets take over territories, and that only reinforced with regular military forces where needed, and then set up puppet states and puppet entities inside, that it could then claim independence and deny the responsibility. So I think Russia’s tactics have moved on in a more effective use of hybrid warfare, but the policy is the same.

- In one statement you said that you offered the NATO partners to issue a declaration that would describe the war as a terrible tragedy and that would support ceasefire, although none of your European colleagues supported the idea, saying the leaders were on their vacations. NATO says we’ll get membership when ready. But, some say we are ready, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, for instance. Overall, what does “ready” mean, and does Georgia has any power to be seen as “ready”? Or, does the arrival of a proper moment depend on any actors other than Georgia and NATO?

- First off, what is ready? NATO has for years held out standards of democracy, free and fair elections, market economy, rule of law, civil control of the military, interoperability with NATO, contributions to European security as a whole, good relations with neighbors ecc. These have been out there for a long time. Georgia has done better than any other candidate seeking NATO membership at this time. So, when people look at Georgia and say, how is Georgian democracy or how’s the market economy, Georgia has done exceptionally well. That also puts NATO in a position saying, well, is NATO ready? NATO only makes decisions by consensus of all the member states. So, for Georgia to be invited to join, it requires every single member of NATO to agree that yes, we now invite Georgia to become a member. There is not such a consensus at NATO today, there are several countries that are concerned about Russia, there are several countries that would still point out the elections for instance, let’s see if it free and fair elections, they will point out politicization of the judiciary and say, well, we are not so sure about that. But fundamentally, as a political judgment by the member states of NATO - is Georgia ready or not. Now, as far as NATO’s policy goes, my view is that it is time, Georgia has done everything that it needs to do, the people who live in Georgia are facing immediate security threats and have been very patient in dealing with them, and need support. And I think that Georgia is indeed ready to be invited to be a member of the alliance and that there are ways to manage Russia’s pressure on Georgia without leading to any kind of military conflict. So I think that it is time for NATO to be taking a fresh look at this.

- Do you think American investments are under threat in Georgia, since Georgian government terminated the contract with Anaklia Development Consortium, and how do you assess that in general?

- I think that we do have an atmosphere or image among investors that they are unsure about investment in Georgia. It doesn’t mean that it has shut off investment, and I think there’s a lot of misinformation or misunderstanding around this, as well. Anaklia had a lot of issues around it, and it was not really taken away American investors, was really dispute between the private consortium and the government over the financing and ultimately, the private consortium not being able to put in place the financing, the government not supporting the project perhaps as robustly as the consortium had wanted, so, it came apart. But I don’t think that in itself is viewed as troubling to investors. There are other instances, however, where investors have felt that the courts have not been a reliable resource in dealing with business disputes, and I think that there needs to be greater confidence in investors in the court system and the rule of law to keep attracting them. I think Georgia’s on the right track, I think it has done exceptionally well, especially compared with other aspiring members of NATO at this time, but there’s always more to do, and especially, when you think about needing to have the economy grow much more quickly than it is growing now, after the coronavirus, I think, attracting foreign investment would be a top priority for the country.

- We remember that you played a crucial part in the USA President, Donald Trump’s impeachment process. Now, what can you say about his attitude to recent developments, such as coronavirus, and then, situation in the USA, following George Floyd’s death – how do you think all of this might shape his pre-electoral and electoral success?

- I think everything that went before March is largely forgotten. I don’t think impeachment has had any lasting impact and I don’t think some of the other issues, does anybody remember any of them? Not really. I think there are three issues now that will determine the rest of President Trump’s term of office, and that will be the most influential on the election, while seeking re-election. First of these is the coronavirus itself, do you avoid a second major spike in infections; the second issue is the economy, do we have a fast and robust economic recovery; and the third is establishing the sense of justice, after the killing of George Floyd and the protests that we have seen across the country. If President Trump is able to address the three of these – the disease, the economy and the sense of justice, I think he stands a good chance of re-electing. If, on the other hand, any one of these is seen publicly as failing, then I think it puts his efforts to get re-elected at risk and favors instead former vice President Biden.

Author: Eka Abashidze