Georgian President’s Statement the Right Step, says Volker

At the NATO Warsaw Summit, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili announced a joint statement by all the major political parties in Georgia, in which the signatories unite under an overarching national goal to advance the country’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. Executive Director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership and former US Ambassador to NATO, Kurt Volker, participated in coordinating the agreement. Ia Meurmishvili of Voice of America spoke with Volker about the significance of the joint statement.

What does this declaration mean for Georgia?

I think it is tremendously important. When you have a country with Georgia’s geography and history, and you have a population that has always looked west– always looked to be a democratic country, a market economy, a part of the community of Europe –for all of the political leaders of the current and former governments to get together around this one idea is tremendously significant.

I’m not aware of anything else where we have seen the government and opposition parties unify around one statement, one idea, in the past. Seeing it this time – presented by the President of Georgia at the Warsaw Summit – is very significant.

How does it reflect on Georgia’s image outside of the country?

I think it is important to look at both sides – internally, inside Georgia, and externally, outside.

Starting externally, one of the image problems Georgia has had over the past several years is that it is not a mature democracy: that the different political parties in Georgia cannot agree on anything, cannot work together; that there have been politically oriented prosecutions; that there have been fights over controlling the media; that there have been accusations about one party or the other. Despite all of that, and despite all the differences among them, the political parties have shown that they are united around this one idea – that Georgia is a European democracy that belongs to the community of transatlantic nations and should be a part of the EU and part of NATO – is tremendously significant.

Internally: when you look inside Georgia, there are always debates, questions and doubts: “Can Georgia make it as a European democracy?” Russian propaganda certainly plays on that – trying to convince Georgians that they have no alternative, that they will be tied to Russia. This is a statement of all the political party leaders in Georgia – of the current and former government – saying ‘No. We believe that Georgia does have a future as part of Europe and, despite everything, we will work together towards that goal.’

Do you think the statement clarifies any ambiguity in regards to Georgia’s Western aspirations in the minds of westerners?

I think it’s a step in the right direction. Under the previous government, we had questions in the West if Georgia really was a mature democracy and– as a result – if we were ready for membership, or the “Membership Action Plan” at the Bucharest Summit (in 2008). NATO decided to take a pause on that.

Since then, we've had questions under the current government as well about what direction Georgia is taking. This statement is now something that everyone can point to, whether it is NATO, the EU, or political leaders inside Georgia. It is unequivocal that this is the direction all the political leaders of Georgia want take.

What next?

I think it’s important to build on the unity in this area, and start developing concrete steps that need to be taken to make it a reality. In order for Georgia to qualify as a member of the EU, or as a member of NATO, there is still a lot of work to do. If we want to look at how Poland, the Czech Republic, or Hungary developed at the time - in terms of democracy, market economy, good relations with neighbors, interoperability with NATO, contributions to common security –all of these things took time to settle in society. It took time to build consensus around them, to build the programmatic steps behind them, and to strengthen institutions to support them.

Do you think there will be a reaction from Russia about this unity?

The one thing I would say about Russia is that you cannot really pay attention to what they say. Russia is always trying to influence the actions and beliefs of others through what it says. Russia would of course react to this very negatively, if they react at all. They will say that it is just a statement, that NATO does not really mean anything, that the Warsaw Summit will not offer the MAP… and so they will point to this as a failure. Do not believe any of it! That is just Russia’s way of trying to influence what Georgians think. What is more important is that all the political leaders in Georgia are reflecting what Georgians actually think which is that they deserve to be a free society, a democracy, and a market economy, just as much as any other Europeans – and that they deserve to have security just as much as any other Europeans. And this idea is now firmly anchored in the policies of both the government and the opposition.

One of the things I think is important about this declaration that the president has put forward is that each of the political parties is taking responsibility. This was not something that was thrown together or imposed on them- each of them is accepting responsibility that this is important for Georgia. That idea that there is a national interest that is greater than any one party’s political interest is a tremendously important idea. I hope that this is something that begins to strengthen Georgia, and becomes a way of shielding Georgia’s democracy from the influences that can pull it apart.

Do you think this unity could serve as a precedent internally for the government and opposition to work together towards achieving a national goal?

I hope so, but I wouldn’t want to make too much out of it at this point. As a matter of foreign policy and national security, I think there is agreement on this orientation for Georgia, and it was possible to write it down for the parties to agree. On domestic politics, there are still a lot of very deep differences. Over time, I hope that will be possible to establish overarching national goals that go beyond any one party’s interest– whether it is in foreign policy or a domestic issue. At this point, because Georgia is going into an election season, it would be very difficult to see this develop further, but at least this one step forward. Every bit of progress made starts with a step somewhere.

Ia Meurmishvili, Voice of America

14 July 2016 20:01