Atlantic Council

Dispatch from Tbilisi

Welcome and Moderator:

Frederick Kempe,
President and CEO,
The Atlantic Council


Senator Jean Shaheen (D-NH)
Senator James Risch (R-ID)

Time: 9:30 A.M.
Date: Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Transcript by
Federal News Service
Washington, D.C.

FREDERICK KEMPE: Thank you very much, and welcome, all of you, to the call. We have a worldwide membership of the Atlantic Council. Our aim is always to bring together our very influential membership around the world with some of the top policymakers, legislators at times of historic importance, and I think today is one of those.

History was made in Georgia yesterday; President Saakashvili conceded defeat in Monday’s parliamentary elections and announced that his United National Movement will move into opposition. That means Georgia will undergo its first peaceful transfer of power via elections since independence.

So to provide our members with insights behind the headlines, we’re delighted to invite you to join us to hear from Senators Jean Shaheen and James Risch, who were in Tbilisi to observe the elections and will be speaking to our members today from the ambassador’s residence now in Ankara, and greetings to Ambassador Frank Ricciardone, a great friend of ours as well.

I’m not going to take up my – any time on this; I want to get straight to the two senators. Let me just say that they were there to observe the elections as members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Shaheen is a Democratic senator from New Hampshire, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe, also on the Armed Services Committee. Senator Risch is Idaho’s 28th senator; he is on the Foreign Relations Committee, also on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

We’ll be on for a short 45 minutes. The opening statements will be on the record from them. Then after that we’ll engage in a deep background conversation, and that means not for attribution in the Q-and-A portion of this. Senator Shaheen, let me – it’s my honor to turn over to you.

SENATOR JEAN SHAHEEN (D-NH): Thank you, Fred, and welcome to everyone who is on the call. As Fred indicated, I’m here with Senator Jim Risch. Both of us sit on the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate. I am the chair of the European Affairs Subcommittee, and Senator Risch is also on the Intelligence Committee.

We have spent the last two days in Georgia as official election observers with the U.S. embassy, and as Fred indicated, and I know you all know already, we watched an historic transition in Georgia. We were very pleased to see that the elections yesterday were overwhelmingly peaceful, few incidents, and that the will of the people of Georgia was expressed, and we will see a historic transition from the ruling United National Movement party and President Saakashvili to the Georgian Dream party that’s been led by Ivanishvili.

And we were impressed with the operation of the elections, with the mechanics of those elections. The two of us visited 11 polling stations, we spoke with election workers, we spoke with observers and with some of the voters, and it was clear that people were excited about having the opportunity to express their views.

And for all of us who have been watching Georgia for some time – and I know that this has been an area that’s of real importance to the United States – Senator Risch and I are friends of Georgians everywhere. We recognize the strategic importance of Georgia and the model that it provides to other countries in that region, particularly the former Soviet republics, of a real transition to democracy.

And certainly we hope that – and look forward to peaceful transition, to the continuation of the democratic institutions that have been built under President Saakashvili and United National Movement, and hope that the new Georgian Dream party that will now be governing will continue on that building.

And I just want to comment on the statesmanship of President Saakashvili in his conciliatory remarks when it became clear that the outcome of the elections was not going to be what had been predicted. I think he gave very positive remarks that helped calm the situation. I think Ivanishvili was also helpful in calming the situation and that that’s very important as we look at how the country will continue to move towards democracy.

So let me stop there and turn it over to Senator Risch for his comments.

SENATOR JAMES RISCH (R-ID): Well, thank you very much, Jean. The experience is fascinating, as you can well imagine. We arrived in Tbilisi for the stated purpose of monitoring the elections. Senator Shaheen had done this a number of times; it was my first opportunity to monitor or observe these types of elections. However, having said that, I’ve run 32 times for public office, I’ve been involved in litigation in court on contesting elections and also head of our state Senate for many years and was involved in actual litigation on the Senate floor on contested races, so I was – I was looking forward to looking at the mechanics of how they were going to do this.

I would say this, and I think I’m speaking for both Senator Shaheen and I when we say that the – there has been a tremendous amount of work that has gone into preparing for these elections. Laws have been passed, people have been trained, they had very clear, precise rules that they followed – almost too precisely – they had checklists. And so as the day started, we went to a polling place to watch them open.

They – it was slightly chaotic at the beginning, which is – it could be understood with these kinds of things, but – (audio break) – 25 minutes late opening, but simply because the people weren’t as experienced as they should have been, or – excuse me, as could have been. But in any event, once they got it moving, what you saw in that polling place was not a whole lot different than you’d see in the United States polling place. There are about a dozen poll workers, but they had certified – (inaudible) – called poll watchers, but observers in virtually all of the polling places. They were from both NGOs from around the world, they were from other countries, but more importantly, virtually every polling place had representatives of the – of several parties. And there were spirited discussions at times, but nonetheless, it was – it was done very orderly, and we watched it – we visited 11 throughout the day, from poor neighborhoods to ones that were a little more affluent. We actually got into some of the ethnic areas, some of the ethnic neighborhoods, and we visited two in the Azerbaijan population and watched them vote.

At the – at – they closed at 8:00. We did not go to the closing, but they had – we reviewed the procedures they had for counting the votes in each of the polling places, and again, it was very, very transparent. The ballot boxes were literally transparent. The people were filming what was going on there constantly, they were – people had, virtually, access to every part of it. The observers could walk around and look at what was going on. And when all was said and done, we did ask for – we interviewed voters, we interviewed officials, we interviewed other monitors. And although we got a handful of complaints, I would say that the complaints would fall in the category, with rare exception, of simply technical constraints, the fact that the polling place was 25 minutes late opening. One of the – one of the opposition parties made a big deal about that, and of course, it didn’t affect the outcome of the election, but technically it’s – it was incorrect.

When all was said and done, at the end of the day, literally, I felt that however this came out, it was going to be a – really a fair election and that the will of the people would be – would be – would be – would come out and be on the table and for everyone to see. I didn’t think there would – I didn’t see any way that there was somebody going to steal that election the way it was conducted, so that’s – that was our day, and I think they can be proud of the way the elections were conducted.

I feel very confident that the results were exactly what the Georgian people put on the table. This morning we had the opportunity – we – first of all, with Ivanishvili and also with – later on with Saakashvili, and as you can imagine, the two camps had a different view. I think both Jean and I have been, in the morning after, on winning camps and losing camps, and so the mood, obviously, was different at each. We had lively discussions with both.

I think at least what we were told by Ivanishvili – he was very much committed to a path, as far as America was concerned, same as his predecessor had been, and said things that we were very comfortable with as far as our relationship in going to the future.

Meeting later with the president, obviously he was disappointed, to say the least. Nonetheless, he reiterated to us his commitment to the Georgian people and talked about the various successes that he had had while president, and they are impressive. There is no question that over the last seven years of his presidency he has moved the country forward on some very, very important reforms and things that obviously I think everyone hopes will continue.

So I’ve talked long enough. That’s kind of been our overview of the whole thing, and we’ll be happy to take questions.

MR. KEMPE: Thank you, Senators, for those insights. Clearly, we’re in a historic situation. I’m sure there are going to be a lot of questions. A situation that’s going to have – you know, this sort of election is unusual in this region, as you know, so we’re looking forward to this discussion.

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