Ross Wilson

  • Russia's Aims and Priorities in Nagorno-Karabakh

    On October 1, the Atlantic Council's Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center held a discussion about Russia's aims and priorities in Nagorno-Karabakh with three experts on Russia and the South Caucuses.


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  • Transcript: Georgia's October 1 Parliamentary Elections


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  • Georgia's October 1 Parliamentary Elections

    The Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center held a discussion on September 19 about Georgia’s upcoming parliamentary elections with IRI Eurasia director Stephen Nix, associate director at the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (IERES) at The George Washington University Dr. Cory Welt, Atlantic Council executive vice president Damon Wilson, and former US Ambassador to the Republic of Georgia Ken Yalowitz. Ross Wilson, director of the Patriciu Eurasia Center, moderated the discussion. 


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  • Georgia's Polarized Political Landscape on the Eve of Elections

    The latest Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center issue brief, “Georgia’s Polarized Political Landscape on the Eve of Elections,” by Assistant Director Laura Linderman and Director Ross Wilson reviews the state of play and key issues in the country’s October 1 parliamentary elections.

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  • Foreign Service and Ambassador Stevens

    The death in Benghazi of US Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and three other staff members of the US mission in Libya is a chilling reminder of the risks that American diplomats and American diplomacy face at a time of violence and uncertainty in the Middle East and the world. 


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  • Turkey's Prudent Management Ends Syria Crisis

    Four days after Syria’s downing of a Turkish F-4 fighter aircraft, the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan brought the crisis to a close by securing NATO support, reporting its views to the UN Security Council, complaining formally to Damascus, and altering the rules of engagement along the 500-plus mile border with its neighbor to the south. Both militaries may now be somewhat more visibly at loggerheads.
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  • Plane Incident Increases Turkey-Syria Tensions

    The loss of a Turkish jet fighter off the coast of Syria signals a further escalation of tensions between Damascus and Ankara, raising the stakes for Turkish leaders who have heretofore limited themselves to diplomatic efforts and mostly quiet support for Syrian refugees and opposition leaders. 

    It is unclear what brought down a Turkish F-4 in the waters off the coast of Hatay province, the tongue of land that hangs down from the Anatolian mainland and that was once part of Syria and remained until relatively recently the object of formal irredentist claims in Damascus.  Lebanese media associated with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement were quick to report that the Syrian air defense downed a Turkish warplane and hit another, but this has not been corroborated – and may have been intended to inflame Turkish-Syrian tension further.  Turkish accounts have discussed only one plane, not two.  Citing unnamed official sources, Turkish media have reported that a search and rescue operation was launched, and other sources have suggested that the Syrian coast guard might be cooperating–which would seem to contradict the assertion that was Damascus responsible for the loss of the plane.  As the day ended in Ankara, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan met with the chief of the Turkish general staff and other top security and foreign affairs aides to assess the situation and determine next steps.  That no clear official announcements have yet been made may suggest that the facts are unclear or that Turkish officials wanted more time to consider and develop the right next steps in response. 

    The F-4 was presumably on a reconnaissance mission over Hatay and along the coastal waters off the territory and Syria farther to the south.  Reflecting the terrain and the fact that extended families sprawl across nearby towns on both sides, the Hatay-Syria border is a relatively porous one that almost certainly has seen trafficking in arms to the Free Syrian Army and possibly other groups in that, as well as cross-border raids by terrorists affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), factions of which have stepped up attacks on Turkish military positions in recent days.  

    If Turkey’s F-4 was in fact brought down deliberately, the recent defection of a Syrian pilot with his MiG-21 to Jordan may have put Syrian air defense on a hair trigger.  Mechanical failure or pilot error could also account for the F-4 loss. Turkey’s F-4s are older and less capable aircraft that its larger and recently modernized fleet of highly capable F-16s whose pilots have gained recent combat experience through their operations since late-2007 against PKK targets in northern Iraq. 

    Whatever the cause, the Hatay F-4 incident adds substantially to the visible costs Turkey is paying as Syria descends into civil war and the risks of wider conflagration.  The country has already hosted as many as 50,000 Syrian refugees, some of whom have returned to homes across the border.  It leaves somewhat exposed bellicose rhetoric of Turkish leaders calling for regime change in Damascus–especially if the aircraft downing was deliberate.  Turkey will almost certainly respond by tightening its own border and coastal patrols, increasing the possibility of a larger-scale planned or unplanned incident that could more decisively point the two countries, one a North Atlantic Treaty ally of the United States, the other an international pariah supported only by Russia, China, and Iran, in the direction of armed conflict.  

    Ross Wilson is director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council and former United States ambassador to Turkey (2005-08) and Azerbaijan (2000-03). 


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  • Reflections on US-Georgia Relations: Transcript - 6/13/12

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    The Atlantic Council of the United States

    Reflections on U.S.-Georgia Relations –
    Past, Present, Future

    Welcome and Moderator:
    Damon Wilson,
    Executive Vice President,
    Atlantic Council

    Speaker:
    John Bass,
    U.S. Ambassador to Georgia

    Location:
    Washington, D.C.

    Date: Wednesday, June 13, 2012

    Transcript by
    Federal News Service
    Washington, D.C.

    DAMON WILSON: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us here at the Atlantic Council. My name’s Damon Wilson. I’m the executive vice president here at the council.

    Ambassador Bass, we’re delighted, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, we’re delighted to be able to welcome you to the council today for this discussion on Georgia’s past, present and future. I’m particularly delighted that the council’s hosting this event not only because of the council’s long-time focus on Georgia in the region, but in particular because of who we’re hosting. Ambassador Bass is among America’s finest diplomats, but more importantly to me is someone I count as a personal friend. I’ve had the honor and pleasure to work with him over the years, to learn from him throughout his career. Thank you, John, for coming to the council for this opportunity at the end of your tour to offer some reflections stepping back and – on a way forward and the way past and present in Georgia.

    We recently had a session with Ken Wollack, who’s a friend of ours, heads up the National Democratic Institution – National Democratic Institute, also a member of the Atlantic Council’s Georgia Task Force. And he kicked off by saying, you know, for many of us in the room, Georgia is a country with which we’ve had a long love affair. Indeed, that’s true here at the council as well. We’ve long recognized Georgia as a pivotal country. It has strategic importance as part of the Caspian energy corridor, of course. But more than that, it can be a powerful success story both as an example of democracy and free markets succeeding in post-Soviet space, and for U.S. and European engagement policy in Europe’s east.

    In 2010, the council created a high-level bipartisan task force that was co-chaired by Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Lindsey Graham. My colleague Fran Burwell who’s here, one of the vice presidents at the council, helped lead that effort. And the task force put out a major report on Georgia in 2011 on Georgia and the West, which made recommendations on U.S., European and Georgian policy on how to advance its euro-Atlantic aspirations. These, interestingly, are aspirations which enjoy the support – broad support of the Georgian people, despite what’s happening in Georgian politics or in a time of war or a financial downturn – consistency in that regard.

    So today is part of a long series of programming here at the council on Georgia, but it’s also a part of our effort to help retain support, and it can build a community in Washington, in the broader Atlantic community, of those that support the idea of continuing a Europe whole and free – one that would include Georgia.

    The council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, led by Ambassador Ross Wilson who’s with us today, has also been quite focused on this area of the world, and in particular, this fall is going to be launching a study tour to Georgia – a study tour that aims to broaden the constituency of Americans and Europeans that are aware of both Georgian affairs and U.S. and European interests in the country. So today’s discussion, from our perspective, couldn’t be more timely. Not only are we hosting Ambassador Bass towards the – toward the end of his time in Tbilisi, but also in the wake of Secretary Clinton’s visit to the region last week, and in advance, of course, of key elections this fall. The 2012 parliamentary elections, the 2013 presidential elections present major challenges and opportunities for Georgia – opportunities for Georgia to demonstrate its commitment to strengthening democratic institutions, the independence of its judiciary, media freedom and a competitive electoral environment.

    We’re so pleased to have Ambassador John Bass with us today. With his tenure coming to an end in Georgia, the ambassador will be offering more thoughtful remarks assessing U.S. and – the U.S. and Georgian relationship, sharing insights drawn from his dedicated three years of service in Georgia, after which we’ll have a chance for a conversation and some questions and answer from the audience.

    A foreign service officer since 1988, Ambassador Bass led the Baghdad Provincial Reconstruction Team from 2008 to 2009 before starting his tour in Georgia. And prior to that, he served as director of the State Department operations center, as special adviser to Vice President Cheney, and as a chief of staff to Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott – a testament to his skills.

    So please join me in welcoming Ambassador Bass to the council. The podium is yours, sir. (Applause.)

    JOHN BASS: Well, Damon, thank you very much for that generous introduction. And since we are in a campaign season, I should note that anything positive he said about me was a paid political advertisement.

    I’m really pleased to be back at the council. I’m really pleased to see such an interest here on the part of so many friends and colleagues and folks who are interested in Georgia and committed to this relationship. And I’m primarily going to offer some broader reflections – themes, if you will – on things I’ve experienced or come to think about in terms of Georgia’s way forward in the next phase of its journey as an independent state again, and then happy to talk about specific policy issues as we go along.

    This is billed as past, present and future. I’m going to primarily focus on present and future, but just would, I think, ground this a bit in the past 20 years. And for those of you who are wondering what this strange lapel pin is, it’s not my party – my party badge. It’s actually a logo designed by a young woman in Gori to commemorate 20 years of our diplomatic relationship. I think the important thing for all of us to take note of as we look back and more importantly think about this relationship going forward is that for the 20 years since Georgia regained its independence, our policy and our support for the country and its people has been organized and oriented around one central principle, and that is the freedom of Georgia to choose its own future, to choose its own relationships, to choose its own security arrangements, to choose its form of governance. That’s consistent with things we and a policy approach we’ve taken across the broader region.

    But I would argue the reason for the disproportionate interest and attention and commitment and resources that Georgia has received from this country, from the United States, across those 20 years, is precisely because that process of choosing Georgia’s future involved so many Georgians. And it is precisely that democratic component I think that has made Georgia stand out in the region, among the post-Soviet successor states, as a relative success story, and certainly on a relative basis with the other successor states.
    That’s not to say that it’s a perfect success by any stretch, and it’s not to say that there have not been some dark chapters. Part of that function of Georgians’ being so heavily involved in choosing their future involved a period in which a wise Georgian characterized to me one time as the country’s experience with being infected by the virus of extreme nationalism, which led to the conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the ongoing challenges of reconciling those conflicts.

    But I think overall, as you look at the 20 years of the relationship, the extent to which Georgians of a range of opinions and stripes, political orientations, have been involved in that conversation about determining their own choices, determining the country’s orientation and its composition and its form of governance, justifies the disproportionate time and energy and attention it has gotten from the United States and from many of our friends in Europe.

    So where does that put us today in the present? I would characterize Georgia still as a work in progress with lots of positive developments and achievements of which it can and should be rightfully proud and to which it is offering the power of example to a number of other countries that are wrestling with some of the same challenges as they make the transitions from authoritarian governance and command or controlled or state-dominated economies in their past. But it still has some areas where I think to realize its full potential and to further encapsulate and strengthen that ability for Georgians of all stripes to determine their own futures individually and as a nation, where there are some areas where we need to see some additional progress. And I would argue that most of those come within the frame of making the tough passage from developing a set of democratic institutions and legal frameworks that we all associate with market-based democracies, to truly building democratic culture and habits and practices.

    As we look at Georgia today, and as I’m sure we’ll hear as the discussion unfolds, we’ve got a fairly polarized political landscape. There is a segment of the electorate which feels disenfranchised that it has not reaped the benefits of the economic growth and development up to this point, or that it has chosen, for a variety of reasons, to contest the ways in which that development and progress has occurred, or to, in some respects, deny that there has been any progress. By characterizing that, I am not and don’t mean to imply that I support that analysis.

    I think it’s fair to say that there has been more energy in the recent past on modernizing infrastructure, modernizing institutions, modernizing and making more effective the delivery of services and the business of governance as opposed to an equivalent amount of energy going into strengthening some of the bones of democratic institutions and cultures. That’s not to say that there has not been progress on that latter half; there has been. But on a comparative basis, the weight of the effort, I think, has been on – for – to summarize imprecisely, modernization.

    And I think it’s important to note that that relative weighting reflects to a large degree the priorities articulated by the Georgian population when you look at polling data. Georgians consistently identify as their principal concerns unemployment, economic development, reintegration of the territories and rehabilitation of infrastructure well ahead of strengthening democratic institutions.

    Looking forward, I think one of the challenges for Georgia, and one of the ways we will continue to support everyone in Georgia, inside and outside government, that is committed to strengthening Georgia’s institutions and democratic culture, is to, I think, look at this 20 years and remember that fundamental principle. And I think the Secretary, in her visit last week, articulated it better than I certainly can from here when she said Georgia’s long-term security and prosperity will depend in large part on the quality of its democracy.

    And I think the extent to which Georgia continues to receive and to merit a disproportionate amount of interest and attention and investment from the United States, as it has up to this point, will continue to depend to a substantial degree on the extent to which it continues to be at the head of the class in its region and among the successor states in strengthening its democracy and in providing opportunities for its citizens in a modern society.

    So what are some of the challenges to accomplishing that? I would say – and these are not in a rank order in terms of importance; I’m just going to articulate four and then touch on two additional ones.

    The first one is what I would describe as the challenge of promoting fact-based reality versus the somewhat mystical reliance on opinion and strength of argument in society. I was at a dinner recently with a range of Georgian business leaders, and one of them said to me, you know, a lot of our problems in this society come back to the central absence, the central paucity of analytical, critical-thinking skills in our population. It’s not something we up to this point in time have taught well in our educational institutions. It’s not something that is a prominent feature in our politics, in our journalism and in our business communities. And for us to be successful going forward across the board, we need more of this skillset.

    And I see that play out in a lot of different ways. And I think – I generally – well, I do; I generally share that characterization. There is, I think, still too much reliance on a fervently held belief or opinion that is not grounded in objective data. It’s not grounded in a set of debates that are informed by opinion where you test a proposition, you hear a counterargument, and you modify your answer, your belief about a subject based on some of that interplay back and forth. There is an awful lot, still, of people talking past each other. That’s not solely something that happens in Georgia, I’m aware, but the extent to which it happens in Georgia – (inaudible) – removed from a set of facts, I think, is a long-term a detriment to further democratic development.

    Corollary to that, I think, is a comparative absence of tolerance. Respect for divergent viewpoints, whether they’re politically oriented, whether they’re based on ethnicity or religion, there are too many people still in society that are looking to define themselves by their differences and to promote their vision in a way which does not include enough room for others. And I think this, to a certain extent, is a reflection of this challenge over the last 20 years in which Georgia has been in the process, and Georgians have been in the process, of deciding who they are now. What does it mean to be Georgian in it – in the modern world, in this period of time when it is emerging from 70 years of totalitarianism?

    And to a certain extent, some people have chosen to answer that question by saying, well, Georgia – to be Georgian means to be ethnically Georgian and an adherent to the Orthodox faith. That doesn’t leave very much room for the many other Georgian citizens who are either from a different ethnic group or embracing a different faith. And I think this government deserves a great deal of credit, notwithstanding those currents, for promoting a vision and making some of the important legal changes necessary to enabling all Georgians, regardless of their ethnicity or their faith, to participate in society on an equal footing, to be able to worship freely as they choose, and to choose a future in which their cultural traditions are respected within the kaleidoscope of the country.

    I think, as I look forward to this campaign and election season which we are in, there are clearly some hints and, I think, a danger that ethnic chauvinism, religious chauvinism potentially will be employed as a wedge issue, as an attempt to introduce this notion of what does it really mean to be Georgian in a classic sense into the conversation. And from my perspective, that would not be a positive development.

    I’d say the third challenge looking forward is that of expanding the benefits of Georgia’s growth and development to a broader cross section of Georgian citizens. Georgia has enjoyed pretty substantial growth rates in recent years, certainly the best in the region, and I think all of us would be envious of a 7 percent growth rate at this point in time. But that growth has not necessarily translated into corresponding increases in employment, and to the extent it has, those gains in employment and in income levels have tended to be concentrated in certain cities and certain regions of the country, and the benefits of the liberalization over the last eight years have not reached many rural villages.

    And I think this is one of the enduring challenges which everyone in the society, frankly, is focused on – a very wide range of opinions about how best to address it. And in the context of attracting additional foreign direct investment as one of the solutions for that, there is a(n) ongoing debate about the appropriate role of the state in stimulating investment in some of these areas. And we can come back to that and talk about it a bit more if there are some questions about that. I’d say the corollary, again, to that challenge is that of creating a more predictable business and investment climate for all businesses but particularly for those investors seeking to enter the market from outside of Georgia.

    There is still a – what I see as a dichotomy between many of the impressive reforms of recent years, which have been appropriately highlighted, including in a recent World Bank study that I’m sure several of you have seen, many of you have seen – there is a dichotomy between those reforms, many of which have helped entice or encourage interest in Georgia’s economy by foreign direct investment, and on the other hand, some areas where, comparatively, there has been less progress.

    And the two I tend to hear from, from prospective or actual investors, revolve around the predictability and transparency of dispute resolution mechanisms and the strength of Georgia’s commitment to enforcing intellectual property rights. Both of those have in recent years, I think, been a bit of a drag on some potential investment, as some – as some investors have waited to see how this market is going to stabilize in terms of offering those opportunities, in terms of demonstrating to them that it is a place in which if there are contract disputes, if there are disputes related to businesses, they can get a predictable fair hearing of their disputes.

    There’s two others that obviously bear on this that I would put in a separate category, and those are the territories and relations with Russia. And the reason I put those in a separate category is that those are not entirely or, in some cases, primarily in Georgia’s ability to influence and dictate the outcomes.

    With respect to relations with Russia, I think we see an ongoing dichotomy, an ongoing conflict in the minds of many Georgians, which is also expressed politically. Polling indicates that a good substantial part of the population, well over a majority, would like to see a better relationship with Russia, but they do not want to see that better relationship come at the expense of irrevocably losing the territories. And reintegration of Abkhazia and South Ossetia continue to be second or third among the priorities expressed by citizens as the ones government should be most focused on.

    So I think that is an ongoing challenge that I would hope some of the leadership in Moscow over time would become a bit more sensitive to and attuned to in terms of understanding their neighbor. I think there is a better understanding these days in Georgia of what’s happening in Russia than there is an understanding of what’s really happening in Georgia by Russians. Hopefully, the government’s decision to offer and extend visa-free travel for Russian citizens will break down some of those barriers. I’m encouraged by the number of Russian license plates and the range of Russians that I see in Tbilisi, in the mountains, in Kakheti, across the country, taking advantage of that opportunity to spend some time in Georgia and to witness firsthand the transformations that are well under way.

    I think with the territories – we can come back to this and discuss it in some more detail – I think the challenge at this point in time, even wrestling with the juridical status of the territories and the ongoing dispute in which we continue to very strongly emphasize our commitment to Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, the challenge is to increase the porosity of those boundary lines and the interaction across those boundary lines to avoid what I believe is the single greatest threat to long-term reconciliation, and that is the potential for the absence of common memory and common experience among the generation of citizens growing up in the territories who have no memory of being part of Georgia and have very little interaction up to this point in their lives with other Georgian citizens.

    Now, having laid out the challenges, let me give you four reasons why I am optimistic about Georgia and Georgians’ ability to meet those challenges.

    The first one is what I would call the mental revolution that is under way across Georgia. And I see it every time I go into a school, every time I interact with people under 25, whether it’s in museums, whether it’s across the counter of Populi or one of the other businesses in town, whether it’s just talking to them on the street. They fundamentally have a different concept of their country, its place in the world and the opportunities that life should present for them and to which they should be able to take part than prior generations. This is a generation that, I think, to a large degree, defines the world in terms of the potential opportunities they have, not the limitations in life to which they have been – they have experienced to this day. And I think that is a really important dynamic underneath the surface that is not captured in much of what you see written about Georgia these days.

    I think another – the second reason I would articulate is a hunger for normalcy. Polling indicates there is very little appetite for a return to the streets as the principal way to negotiate political change in society. To me, that speaks not of dissolution; it speaks of a degree of political maturity in a population that is looking out of government, not of politics, for opportunities to live their lives, to raise their kids, to have a better life, to seek economic opportunity. And they are not interested in seeing a return to the massive street protests that have been part of the electoral process in many recent years.

    Third reason is what I would characterize as un- or underutilized capacity. Georgia still has lots of opportunities that can be capitalized on: relatively low productivity; several market segments that are open for opportunity if the business climate stabilizes in a way that attracts that investment; there is an awful lot of empty agricultural land that is no longer under cultivation that can be; there is an enormous potential for hydropower development; and there are several other segments like this where the potential is there. This is a country that, again, if the fundamentals remain in the right direction, there is the potential for a lot of momentum.

    And the fourth one is one that, I think, too often gets a bad rap in some circles, and that is that Georgia is a country with vision. There is a willingness to think differently about the country and about the society, notwithstanding some of the impulses to think in very classic traditional terms about ethnicity and religion.

    There is, I believe, a degree of legitimate criticism that sometimes there is a little too much vision and not enough execution or enough discussion of the costs and benefits involved in pursuing a particular vision, a particular project over a different one or a different way of utilizing those resources. But I would argue that the converse would not be in Georgia’s long-term interests, the converse being a country in which there is a very high degree of implementation and very little vision behind that implementation.

    To sum up, because I think it’s always more interesting in these discussions to have a conversation and respond to some of your specific questions, I think the challenge for the next period in Georgia’s development is whether this country can continue to modernize, develop its economy and strengthen its democratic culture simultaneously, because all three of those are important to its long-term prospects and long-term success, and to do so in a way that gives more of its citizens a sense of participation and ownership in the process.

    My sense at this point in time is that too many Georgians think of governance – even when they think of it in positive terms, which many of them do, they think of governance as something that is done to them rather that something that involves them. And that sense of grassroots participation is something that, I think, will be important as Georgia continues to strengthen and deepen that democratic culture.

    Now, there are a couple of prerequisites to accomplishing that. One of the principal ones, which I hope we will see some action and progress on sooner rather than later, is better access to information about what is happening in society, what government is doing, why it is doing it, better access for a wider range of Georgian citizens. Too many people are having to rely on single sources of information or trying to piece together what is happening from a range of sources of information, each of which has a very focused concentrated point of view which does not consider alternative facts, alternative opinions and, in some cases, does not do a whole lot of rigorous analysis before presenting its viewpoints.

    Comparative to that, corollary to that, I think more informed discussions and debates about relative costs and benefits, trade-offs of particular policy choices, particular approaches to certain challenges in society, again, will be an important part of strengthening that democratic participation and strengthening that democratic culture. And it’s certainly my hope that a fair amount of that will be happening in the next parliament. And it’s certainly my hope that the next parliament will, broadly speaking, represent the wider cross section of viewpoints and opinions in society that we are seeing in this precampaign, this campaign pre-electoral period.

    And I think finally, an important piece of this will be decreased perceptions of a culture of impunity for certain people in society, for certain organizations in society, a strengthening of perception that everyone is equal before the law.

    These are challenges that all democratic societies face. Georgia certainly isn’t the only one facing this. But as I think broadly about the context in which a lot of these other issues unfold and play out, this is an important piece of getting that right.

    So let me stop there. Happy to take your questions or have a bit of an exchange on that. I would just say, in summing up, as I look forward to the end of my tenure in the very near future, it’s been a great privilege and joy for me and my wife to experience this country in all its richness and diversity over the last three years and to be a friend of everyone in Georgian society, inside and outside government, who are dedicated to providing that better future for their fellow citizens and who are determined to ensure that this country continues to have the freedom to choose its own future.

    It’s been a privilege to be a steward of U.S. policy and the relationship on behalf of my country and my government, and I would just like to acknowledge two other stewards in that long road: former Ambassador Miles, who played an instrumental role a number of years ago, and my successor, Ambassador Dick Norland, who’s going to be following me in the very near future.

    So, thank you all very much for coming today. (Applause.)

    MR. WILSON: John, Ambassador Bass, thank you very much for that. I thought that – what a terrific way to sort of offer real reflections, sort of a broader perspective after three years on the ground in Tbilisi. I thought that was particularly insightful, particularly thoughtful.

    And I want to pick up first – I’ve got so many questions for you; I don’t want to monopolize it. But let me start with a few points, and then bring in the audience into our conversation. We have a particularly well-informed group of audience members who know Georgia well, and I’d like to give them a chance to continue the conversation with you.

    But – you – in your points about the reasons to be optimistic about Georgia’s future, you mention the mental revolution that’s taking place across the country, the hunger for normalcy, the (on- ?) or under-utilized capacity in the country, and Georgia’s a country of vision. So I want to pick up on two of those points: one that points us in the direction of the domestic issues, parliamentary elections, and one that takes us in the direction of foreign policy.

    The hunger for normalcy – we’ve heard this a lot and in the context of wanting to see a more normal political process unfold, to get away from necessarily issues of individuals and more to process and parties. And yet we’re heading into a parliamentary election that’s essentially dominated by two big personalities, President Saakashvili as well as the new self-appointed opposition figure of Ivanishvili, or a sense of polarization, headed in those – for elections. So can you offer us – you gave us some broad perspective on what you see in Georgia, where you see it today. But how do you see this parliamentary election, either as a step forward for Georgia’s path to beginning to normalize its politics, to strengthen democratic institutions? How much are we going to see a contest of the elections versus a contest of the legitimacy of the elections? And so as you talk about the process of political – the evolution of political maturity, will this be a step forward in that process or not?

    AMB. BASS: The short answer is it’s too early to tell. The elements are in place, I think, for it to be a big step forward. There are certainly opportunities for more competitive politics. There is, I think, a marketplace for ideas, and I think there is a genuine interest in seeing parties and individuals fill that marketplace with competing ideas.

    I think unfortunately too much energy up to this point has been focused on the process itself and the playing field. There are certainly some areas where we would like to see some additional improvements. There are, however, a number of areas where there have been improvements. And I think one of the challenges for this period is ensuring the environment is competitive enough so that people focus more on contesting the elections themselves, rather than on contesting the legitimacy of the process.

    At this point in time, frankly, I don’t see a landscape that requires the majority of the effort to be put on the latter. Are there areas where we’d like to see some additional improvements? We would have liked to have seen some additional improvements in the last set of the electoral code reforms, yes, and we’ve been pretty clear about what those were and, you know, we continue to have conversations with the government, along with some of our European partners and friends, about maybe providing some additional adjustments. But I think broadly speaking there is a landscape in place which enables the kind of competitive election that Georgians, I think, would like to see.

    MR. WILSON: Your other point about Georgia’s a country with vision struck me because you look at Georgia on the eastern littoral of the Black Sea in the South Caucasus, and this is a country that, not just at a leadership level, but across the population, has an aspiration, almost an audacious vision of seeing this country not just as part of Europe, but really in the institutions of Europe and NATO and the European Union. And that’s a pretty audacious vision.

    Can you offer a little bit, from your perspective over three years, how you’ve seen that – the sense of those aspirations develop? What’s the state of play, as you think about where Georgia is in its relationship with NATO and the European Union, clearly on the heels of a Chicago summit during which Secretary Clinton said she would expect this to be the last summit that isn’t an enlargement summit; in advance of further EU – progress on the EU agenda, whether it’s been on trade or visas in advance of more review – of commission report of progress on what Georgia’s doing in its partnership there, as part of the Eastern partnership; but more broadly than that? Give us a sense of where you see that – how much progress has been made over three years. Where do you see that going as part of Georgia’s sort of audacious vision for itself?

    AMB. BASS: Well, I think – I mean, this is a great example of why vision matters and where it has been so important because less vision, less commitment to that vision in this case could easily have resulted in frankly a lot less forward progress. And that determination to show results, to ask for a demanding set of objectives, and to make a lot of progress in fulfilling them, I think, has brought Georgia closer to both, deepening its relationship with the European Union and also deepening its relationship with NATO in the – in the run-up to eventual membership.

    You know – and I think particularly with – on the European side, the EU side – three years ago, I think, if you had polled a room as to whether Georgia would have started, let alone be well into DCFTA negotiations, a lot of people would have said, nah, that’s crazy. You know, that’s not – that’s not realistic at this point; it’ll take longer, similar to visa liberalization talks.

    I think with respect to NATO, we’ve seen an awful lot of progress on defense reform and modernization, creating that institutional framework for the defense ministry, for the armed forces, frankly, in the – in the context of some ongoing really hard problems that most defense ministries in the NATO environment do not face in terms of their own self-defense. And so being able to do that hard work – I was just up at the, for example, the new national defense academy last week, which is a bachelor’s level professional military establishment built out of whole cloth – out of whole cloth – out of the ruins of the 4th Brigade barracks in Gori, which were partially destroyed by the Russians four years ago, and to see a set of cadets there who are smart, sharp, motivated, committed to their country’s independence and to defending it, and choosing a professional military life, is a really impressive thing.

    MR. WILSON: You gave a sense of this – of progress on both the NATO and EU front. Is it your sense, looking from Tbilisi – I mean, you’re looking across a Europe that’s gripped by, obviously, a eurozone crisis right now, both a – both the economic and political crises resulting from that, an alliance that was a little cautious on enlargement in Chicago. But you’ve pointed to demonstrable progress. Do you see these aspirations as still being viable and seeing them seen as viable by Georgian people in terms of the credibility of the Bucharest commitment on membership, about continuing integration with the European Union?

    AMB. BASS: I think I do see it continuing to be a credible future goal. How quickly that’ll happen of course is up to the members of the alliance. But I see a population that, broadly speaking, still supports that aspiration; that still sees that goal of membership as a key piece of Georgia’s long-term security; and I see a government that understands that fulfilling the broad set of criteria and being the kind of democracy that is going to provide that civil-military relationship, those checks on executive power that are going to reassure the other leaders of the alliance that this is a country that is going to contribute to security, not simply outside of the NATO area, but within the NATO area – and I see both of those pieces in place, and I think the continued hard work in the trenches, if you will, of making those incremental, additional steps forward will continue.

    MR. WILSON: Let me ask one more question and then I’ll turn to the audience. Just catch my eye if you would like to weigh in.

    You’re here just after Secretary Clinton’s visit to the region. Obviously, it’s always a major development to host the secretary, Secretary Clinton, in the country. Can you talk a little bit from that perspective about – what was the significance of her visit? There were a lot of issues on the U.S. agenda, from defense cooperation to talk of a – of beginning an FTA. We’ve got some folks here from the Hill – some of these issues have been contentious issues on the Hill, of where U.S. policy is on some of these, so if you could speak to that.
    But also, her visit to Georgia was in the context of a visit to the South Caucasus, to the region, where there are serious issues in play, in Azerbaijan and Armenia. Your reflections sort of reinforced the way many of – many folks perceive Georgia’s unique discussion about Georgia. How did this visit play into Georgia’s place in the region, as well? So sort of two parts to that: the bilateral agenda that was advanced to – sort of give us a bit of a debrief on the way that was advanced with the secretary’s visit, but how her visit not just to Georgia but the region sort of affected the way you think about, as the ambassador in Tbilisi, Georgia’s position in a region that has pretty complex issues in play right now.

    AMB. BASS: Sure. Well, I’d say there were two components to the visit. Certainly her visit itself – her activities got the bulk of the attention, but in parallel with that, we also had the annual plenary session of the Strategic Partnership Commission, which really is the motor for a lot of what we do in the bilateral relationship. And that combination, if you will, capped a period of developing some additional areas of cooperation, some enhancements to our defense cooperation relationship, which had been set in motion when the two presidents met in late January –

    MR. WILSON: She was fairly specific on that in her public comments as well.

    AMB. BASS: She was, yeah, yeah. And all those are areas which are, broadly speaking, in train and we’re working on as we go forward within the context of our bilateral defense cooperation on an annual basis.

    Prior – the week prior to her visit, the high-level trade dialogue with USTR and the Georgian government was initiated – and this, again, was something that had been featured in the two presidents’ meeting in January – where we’re looking at specific ways to strengthen the trade and investment relationship, including the prospect of a possible free trade agreement. That, I think, is a – you know, a real significant vote of confidence, if you will, in the – both development of the country writ large, but in the quality of its economy and the potential it offers, and I think, importantly, on our broader people-to-people exchanges, if you will.

    The visit capped a long period of discussions about how we can take some specific steps to try to get at what I was describing at the podium, which is to increase the porosity of the boundary lines. And in that regard, we announced our decision to accept the status-neutral travel document as an additional way for those Georgian citizens who are residents of the territories to travel outside of those regions in order to get a wider perspective on what is happening in the world.

    MR. WILSON: And the regional piece, so how Georgia fits into the regional side?

    AMB. BASS: The regional piece. Yeah, I mean, there were obviously some detailed discussions about the immediate neighborhood, as well as the role Georgia plays as a hub and throughput not simply for the South Caucasus but also for Central Asia – interesting discussion in the dovetail of the meetings occurring at the public service hall, which is a really quite remarkable one-stop shop for a wide range of public services. I have yet to visit one of these centers with an American guest who does not look at them and say, gosh, if only I could get a driver’s license in five minutes in the United States, for example.

    MR. WILSON: So we replace the DMV. Right.

    AMB. BASS: But that’s important in the broader context of a conversation about why automobiles, which are not produced in Georgia, are now one of its leading exports. And the answer is because it’s very easy to register, get title on a vehicle in Georgia, and so it’s attracted an enormous number of people from the neighboring countries, who, frankly, are looking for an easy, shall we say, low-cost way to conduct their business with the state, and who have found it much more attractive to come buy a car in Georgia and then take it home, or to import several cars that they then sell, than try to do that solely in their own case.

    So, you know, in that positive sense, the power of Georgia’s example is having a ripple effect in its economy but also in the neighborhood, as well as offering the potential for some deeper economic and trade relationships extending into Central Asia. And you know, in the context of our overarching policy objectives of recreating that greater Silk Road initiative –

    MR. WILSON: Right.

    AMB. BASS: – you know, there’s a potential opportunity there that we certainly want to help develop.

    MR. WILSON: Terrific. That’s fascinating. The DMV is the locus of financial activity in the South Caucasus. I hadn’t anticipated that.

    Let me turn to the audience, and I’m going to ask that as you – as you ask a question, that you introduce yourself for our listeners that are with us either through webcast or video.
    Ambassador Kauzlarich, please. The mic in the front row, please.

    Q: Rich Kauzlarich, George Mason University. Excellent presentation, John. Congratulations on a successful time in Tbilisi.

    A couple of things that may have been implicit in what you said but I didn’t hear explicitly, one being the – this overarching concern about crime and corruption. Obviously, some of these things represent a real sense of progress on dealing with some of the petty corruption relating to driver’s licenses; in other ways, of no policemen demanding bribes in the same way that they were 20 years ago.

    But on the other hand, I think there’s considerable concern about organized crime, and I think the recent Treasury announcement of some of the key organized crime figures, including some Georgians, ought to be a cause of concern. And I tie that to your IPR concerns as well, because we’re seeing in other parts of the world where organized criminals are getting involved in counterfeiting and other activities that would have a deleterious effect on a free trade arrangement, not to mention membership in the European Union. So I wonder if on this, these bigger questions, what – how is the government viewing that, and what additional steps can we anticipate?

    The second question is a little shorter and it has to do with Iran, and how does Georgia see its relationship with Iran? And I know there have been recent – you know, recently, there seemed to have been a warming of at least the economic relationship. But how do they see that in the context of not just U.S. policy but global policy toward Iran?
    MR. WILSON: Good questions.

    AMB. BASS: OK. Thanks, Rich. On the corruption, organized crime piece, let me – let me first say, on the organized crime piece – a lot of the people who are being designated are ethnic Georgians, but they’re not resident in Georgia and they’re not active in Georgia. And I think this is an area where, again, the government deserves an enormous amount of credit for taking care of what had been an endemic problem.

    With respect to the corruption piece – you know, again, this ties back to what I was describing in terms of the fact-based reality. There the – “corruption” is a – an umbrella term that people use to describe a wide range of activities that do not fit what I would consider a classic definition of corruption, which tends to include folks seeking preferential treatment from government in licit or illicit ways, which have to do with actual or perceived barriers to competition within certain segments of the economy, certain commodity sectors, all those kinds of things. I’ve seen the term utilized in a couple of cases, frankly, by companies that had not been – or individuals – that hadn’t been successful and wanted to offer a reason why they hadn’t been successful without acknowledging that, you know, it had not panned out the way they had expected it to.

    So I think it’s really important to try to have – as we go forward, across the board, – a precise definition of what we’re talking about when we talk about corruption. And this is one of the reasons why I think, going forward, Georgia would be well-served by having more transparency, if you will, and access to information about government’s decisions, particularly in terms of comparative choices, relative choices about how it’s choosing to invest its public infrastructure funds, because I think it would have the effect of stripping away a lot of the rumor and innuendo and supposition that there must be something going on behind the scenes.

    With respect to your second question, on Iran, it is obviously an ongoing topic of discussion between the two governments on multiple levels. And I would say it’s framed in the context of understanding that Georgia lives in the South Caucasus neighborhood, Iran is a neighbor, and there needs to be a relationship between the two countries, just as there is in any neighborhood, and that to the extent Georgia offers an opportunity for Iranians to get out of Iran and see what’s happening in the neighborhood and to see what’s happening in a neighboring democracy, that’s a good thing.

    But by the same token, you know, given the extent to which the Iranians are practiced over time at finding ways to evade sanctions, and given our belief that sanctions – the effectiveness of the current sanctions regime is a – you know, an important part of why Iran is back at the negotiating table, we obviously don’t want to see a circumstance in which, even unwittingly, Georgia becomes an avenue for Iranian companies or Iranian individuals who are sanctioned to avoid those sanctions.

    MR. WILSON: Terrific. Please, in the middle of the room, please.

    Q: Thank you. Jeff Goldstein from Open Society Foundations. Mr. Ambassador, with an eye towards the elections coming up, just a question in terms of the software of democracy you sort of talked about. In your view, does the current generation of Georgian political leaders accept that in a democracy politics is something less than an all-or-nothing game, and that while painful, losing an election is a normal part of democratic life?

    AMB. BASS: I would – that’s a great question, and it gets to some of what I was describing in terms of that middle passage to democratic culture. I would say there is an evolving appreciation for that. It’s a work in progress. There are some political officials, political leaders who have taken that up. Irakli Alasania, for example, after losing the mayoral race to the current mayor, Gigi Ugulava, two years ago, conceded and called to congratulate him. And that was, you know, probably the first time that had happened.

    MR. WILSON: (Off mic.)

    AMB. BASS: That was not uniformly perceived to be the thing he should have done, and he took some criticism for it, unfortunately. But I think that, again, provides the power of an example.

    There is, however, still a strong undercurrent of zero-sum thinking in terms of political dynamics. And I think, unfortunately, one of the things that has happened within the opposition has been a tendency to criticize parties that are willing to take half a loaf in a negotiated process with the ruling party rather than insist on, you know, a loaf and a half. And until we get to a point – until Georgia gets to a point where that becomes more of a feature, we’re going to continue to see, I think, some of these strong centrifugal forces in politics, which ultimately don’t necessarily produce better outcomes, and policy solutions that get a bigger piece of the overlap in the Venn diagram, for example, between competing positions.

    MR. WILSON: Were you describing Georgian or American politics? (Chuckles.) No comment.

    Please, Fran in the front row, please.

    Q: Fran Burwell from the Atlantic Council. I wish you would say a bit more about Russian-Georgian relations. You made the point that Georgians can’t really – it’s one area where they can’t really control what’s going on. We now have Mr. Putin back in office, and the relationship between him and President Saakashvili is personally very charged. Are you worried about that? Are you worried about after the election or the – if the opposition were to come in or a non-Saakashvili – are you worried about anyone being too close to Russia in any way?

    Are you also – are you perhaps worried at all about the Sochi Olympics being an action-forcing event or something that becomes a touchstone in terms of raising the electrical charge between these two parties?

    AMB. BASS: I would say it continues to be a very complicated relationship, and one in which there is not a lot of room at this point in time for the kinds of practical cooperation which could exist. And I think a big part of the reason why, from my perspective in Tbilisi, is because there is still a fundamental difference of views about how the peripheral states should interact with the Russian Federation and with Moscow. And it is still the case, I think, that there are too many people in Moscow who think essentially that one or more of the peripheral states should be grateful for whatever relationship they have and should accept whatever terms are dictated to them for how that relationship should be shaped.

    And I think, again, one of the reasons why the power of Georgia’s example is so important is precisely because it has chosen a different model. One can argue about whether it’s done so in a fashion that is more dramatic than it needs to be or in a way that has chosen to emphasize differences to a degree that they don’t need to be. But I think, you know, that’s arguing on the margins about style in ways that obfuscate that important underlying principle that gets back to this notion of having the freedom to choose.

    I don’t see a lot of room for the relationship to improve fundamentally until there is – until we get through the next electoral cycle in Georgia. And hopefully the Russian government realizes that the president, in his approach to relations with Russia, has been reflecting public opinion to a large degree and not simply creating it out of whole cloth or being widely at variance with it.

    And I think until that point in time when some of the Russian nostalgia for an imagined past relationship, which certainly is not shared by Georgians – until some of that is distilled away, stripped away, you know, there isn’t a lot of room for that kind of practical interaction. We’ll see if the agreement which was reached on Russia’s WTO accession offers some practical ways forward. Certainly offers the potential for that if it is implemented in good faith by both parties.

    I would say with respect to the – sort of the last piece of your question, the use of military exercises for political purposes, if you will, would be at odds with a professed interest on Moscow’s part in seeing more stability in the South Caucasus, and I think not contribute to promoting the kinds of political stability and evolution of democratic governance that we want to continue to see through this electoral cycle.

    We obviously have expressed, as have a number of countries, our concern that the fall exercises that Russia has planned are – be conducted in a transparent fashion, with appropriate notifications to neighbors, so that everyone understands what is going to be happening and when.

    And just by extension, I mean, this is one of the reasons why we continue to feel so strongly and reiterate our belief that one of the key elements of the cease-fire arrangements after the war that needs to be implemented is access to both sides of the ABL by the European Union monitoring mission, precisely because we’ve had instances over the past few years in which exercises of an unannounced character have occurred in the territories and which had the potential to, you know, prompt the kind of reaction that would have led to an escalation. And you know, the Georgian government deserves an enormous amount of credit for its restraint in the face of those kinds of exercises.

    MR. WILSON: That’s a critical point headed into the fall, with the scale of Khakhaz (ph) exercise, sort of even how it’s been promoted up to – up to now – you’re right – has not been exactly conducive to promoting a sense of security and stability.

    I’m going to group a couple of questions, because we’ve got a few. Let me turn to two folks who’ve been some of the most knowledgeable on Georgia here: Tom, and then I’ll come to Susan Allen Nan.

    So please – right here, and then to Susan, and then I’ll come –

    Q: Tom de Waal from the Carnegie Endowment. Thanks for a great presentation. You mentioned some of the economic disparities. I just wondered if you could comment a little on some of the political disparities between Tbilisi and the regions, that in many ways Tbilisi now resembles a kind of Central European city. And I think most people expect there to be a pretty fair and competitive election there. If the opposition has concerns, it’s probably in places like Samegrelo, Kvemo Kartli, where they complain about intimidation.

    So I wonder if you could speak a little about the challenges of kind of monitoring an election in the regions where there’s obviously a lot more of the kind of old Soviet practices that we’re no longer seeing in Tbilisi. Thanks.

    MR. WILSON: And let me, John, pick up with two questions here. Susan, if you – if we could keep the mic here, please, for Susan. What struck me – I’m not sure what your question will be, but what made me think of you when John was speaking – Ambassador Bass was speaking – you mentioned the absence of common memory and common experience between folks in Georgia and folks living in the occupied territories as being one of the most significant risks. And I know Susan’s done a fair amount of work on this area. So I hope we could draw out that theme.

    But please.

    Q: Thank you, thank you. Yeah, I was interested in – it’s been really interesting to hear your presentation from a perspective of three years later. Here’s the – (chuckles) – big-picture view. And I wanted to ask on – you know, there are some things that can be done around the porous boundaries issue and increasing – maintaining some amount of contact.

    But if you were to come here and Ambassador Norland were to come back in three more years – (chuckles) – and give his big-picture view, what would you hope the story is around challenge four, the Abkhaz, South Ossetia and the Georgian-Russian relationship? Can you imagine a good story; that he could come back and say, ah, here’s some progress? Maybe not totally solved in three years, but what would that look like?

    MR. WILSON: Good question. Good question.

    Why don’t you take those two, and then I’ve got a smattering of more questions here too.

    AMB. BASS: OK. Political disparities – clearly a big part of imbuing that democratic culture. I think there are some mechanisms in place that have the potential and already are having an impact. The government’s decision to recreate the interagency task force for elections well before the start of the formal campaign period I think is a really constructive step, because it addresses precisely those instances in which local officials are either out of step or misinterpreting what they think they should be doing, or in some cases don’t really understand what the rules are, since some of them have changed.

    I think with respect to the minority regions, there is a challenge there in developing political – democratic culture, as, Tom, you know, you know, much better than I do. Part of it is access to information because of language barriers. Part of it is some of the social networks and structures and hierarchies present in villages in those regions, and a sort of reflexive belief that the best thing to do is to support whoever is in power.

    We and – one of the things we are doing is promoting some election awareness and education efforts in those regions, both directly and through some local NGOs, in an effort to try to get at some of that. And we’ve also set up a set of regional civic engagement centers which provide meeting space and research space for – on a first-come, first-served basis for political parties or NGOs or whoever wants to use them in an effort to try to address what had been an identified resource constraint for alternative viewpoints in the regions.

    I am hopeful that we are going to get enough long-term monitors in advance of the election to be able to be out and about on a regular basis. But I have to say, up to this point, I’ve seen the government be fairly responsive to concerns identified both by us and by specific political parties and organizations that have raised them – separate and distinct, obviously, from that subset revolving around the new campaign finance restrictions and the extent to which those are alleged to be impinging on political speech and activity.

    And Susan, what would I hope to see in three years? I would – I mean, broadly speaking, I would hope to see increased porosity of those boundary lines. I – I’m optimistic that we can potentially make some progress on – in Shida Kartli and up along the South Ossetian ABL on things like irrigation and access to water. Cautiously optimistic, and certainly don’t want to jinx that.

    And I think, you know, there is the potential for more educational exchanges and certainly opportunities for people to move in and out of the territories for health care. I think the – there are potentials – there’s potential for economic trading back and forth, particularly around agricultural products; certainly something the Georgian government is interested in promoting and something we will continue to look for ways to support.

    And I would just say, with respect to the territories and increasing engagement and interaction across the boundaries, it’s not something we talk a great deal about publicly. But that doesn’t mean that there – we’re not talking about it and working on it privately behind the scenes. And I think you know better than most people that, you know, often with this set of activities, to avoid them becoming overly politicized in the juridical dispute about the status issue, less is more, in some respects.

    MR. WILSON: Mmm hmm. (Agreement.) It’s a key – a very key issue.

    All right, let me turn to a voice from Capitol Hill here in the third row. And then I’ll come to the back with Cory (sp). Was there – with Cory (sp), I see you, and I thought I had missed somebody on the left as well.

    All right, now – please, yes, right here. Right there.

    Q: Thank you. Winsome Packer with the Helsinki Commission. This administration has in many respects given lip service to seeking to hold Russia accountable to the agreements of 2008 – (inaudible) – with regards to withdrawing its military personnel from Georgian territory. And President Obama has – and Secretary Clinton have been relatively passive in their approach to both Putin and Medvedev, as we’ve seen most recently with the missile defense discussion.

    I wonder how the – how the Georgians view the coming elections and whether or not they expect anything different in terms of approach if –

    MR. WILSON: Our coming elections, or –

    Q: – yes, ours – whether they expect anything – a different approach from a Republican president than they do with this one. What do you hear in your discussions with them?

    MR. WILSON: And John, let me pick up Cory (sp) in the back as well, please.

    Q: Thank you. Thank you, Ambassador, for your very thoughtful comments. I wanted to pick up on something that you had left off with, which was the campaign finance laws. And I think that this is something within the political process today that is one of the least understood and appreciated aspects of the campaign.

    And what I – I mean, as you know, this week there were a series of fines levied against the leading opposition figure, Bidzina Ivanishvili, to the tune of about $90 million. So regardless of who’s right in this debate – I don’t want to really get into that – I’m just curious what your take is on what this says about where Georgia is in a democratic political process when you can have a situation in which the leading opposition candidate is fined that sum just months before the elections.

    MR. WILSON: And since I have a feeling our ambassador to Georgia will be reluctant to weigh into American politics, let me just add a corollary to the first question there; you know, how – what’s the perception in Georgia of how Russia is sort of reacting to an electoral process here in the United States, of what Russia’s attitude is towards the United States, the absence from the G-8, the push on a Eurasian union. If you can give us a little bit more texture on that as well. So.

    AMB. BASS: OK. Well, you were correct in your assumption that I’m not going to opine on U.S. electoral politics.

    MR. WILSON: (Chuckles.)

    AMB. BASS: You know, I would – I would first start by respectfully saying I don’t share your assessment of the administration’s approach to Russia policy or your characterizations of, you know, the way in which we have approached some of these contentious issues. I think, frankly, if your assessment was correct, then we would be doing a lot less with Georgia than we are doing, because, frankly, it would be a lot less of a feature in the bilateral diplomatic exchanges with Moscow and remove a major irritant from what’s already a complicated relationship. And, you know, any number of issues would be easier to deal with.

    What I will say about the Russia relations and the way they’re perceived in Georgia, you know, I’d invite you to go back and look at President Saakashivili’s comments after his meeting with President Obama in the Oval Office, which he characterized as the best meeting he had had with a U.S. president and commenting on the depth of the relationship at that point in time.

    It’s no secret and I think everyone in this room who’s been following U.S.-Georgian relations certainly knows that at the outset of this administration there was a great degree of apprehension in Georgia about the reset and what it meant and a concern that it would be precisely a transactional approach in which they’d get thrown under the bus.

    There is a profoundly different dynamic in terms of talking about our relationship with Russia with Georgians two years, three years later, because they have seen that that has not been the case, that we have continued to press issues of principle, we’ve continued to work issues of practice and pragmatism in Geneva, in Moscow, in Washington, in other capitals to try to make progress on a very difficult, challenging set of issues.

    And the challenge here is how you compel the kinds of changes and the adherence to a set of commitments that the Russian government made in the face of an evolution in its legal position based on its decision to recognize the territories as independent countries. It’s not an easy issue set. And we don’t pretend it’s easy. But we think we’ve done pretty well given the complexity and the challenges that it entails.

    With respect, Corey (sp), to your question about campaign finance –

    MR. WILSON: And if you might –

    AMB. BASS: Yeah, sure.

    MR. WILSON: -- doing campaign finance, maybe talk a little about the media as well. Those two issues have come up a lot in conversations here.

    AMB. BASS: Yeah. Yeah. Broadly speaking, campaign finance – certainly a challenge in lots of democratic societies. From my perspective, it is reasonable to look at the introduction into the political system of an individual whose net worth is equivalent to over half of a country’s GDP and conclude that there should be reasonable limits on the degree to which any individual can use his assets to influence a political process. That’s a reasonable thing, from my perspective, in a democratic society.

    How that is implemented and the extent to which the introduction of campaign finance limits potentially reinforce a competitive advantage that the ruling party has from a period in which they did not – they were not in place is a bigger challenge and one that, frankly, is being worked through in a – in a process now.

    I think the challenge here is the extent to which the parties involved in this, both government – small “p” parties – government and Mr. Ivanishvili and his coalition are interested in trying to observe the spirit of the law and concede that there should be a reasonable limit on the degree of resources that are available to be used in a campaign.

    Our concern continues to be whether these provisions are used in a way that restricts or curbs or suppresses political speech and legitimate political activity, and the manner in which they are implemented serves to have a chilling effect on political organization, people’s willingness to self-identify, all those kinds of things. And that’s where we continue to encourage the Chamber of Control to be transparent about its activities, to publish a set of guidelines that essentially give the parties the frame in which, you know, within this frame your activities are legitimate, permissible.

    To a certain extent, some of that has gone on in direct conversations between the chamber and political parties, but that sense of the frame has not been transparent to the broader population. And I think as part of the process of increasing perceptions of the legitimacy of the process, that’s an important piece of public – of information that needs to be available to the public.

    Now, with respect to this week’s fines – which have been, frankly, unfolding as I’ve been traveling so I can’t comment on all the specific details -- you know, again, the challenge here is the extent to which – the big issue here is the extent to which citizens of Georgia who live outside of the major metropolitan areas and don’t have access to cable providers who are covering – who carry the pro-opposition channels or who don’t have a – one of the better regional stations that is offering a range of perspective and therefore are relying on the major terrestrial broadcasters, who tend to have a pro-government orientation – the question is how to broaden that landscape for those voters so they get a range of perspectives.

    I think it is legitimate to express a concern that these voters don’t have access to a wider range of information. Who should be providing that service and how is the more challenging question at this point in time. And when a political candidate is the one who is providing that service, I think that’s where it clearly gets very tangled. Now, whether the fine is appropriate to the alleged violation or not, I haven’t had a chance to dig into it to examine, so I can’t give you an opinion on that narrow piece of it.

    MR. WILSON: Thanks, John. In the one minute that we have remaining, let me take our last question here and just ask if Ambassador Wilson wants to close with any comment. But, please, the second row, and then if you’d like, Ambassador Wilson.

    Q: Yes, Robert Yaver with APCO Worldwide. First, thank you for your service the past few years. Real quickly, to go along with transparency and media – medium, are you concerned with media freedom and some of the abuses that are being reported out right now?

    MR. WILSON: And then, Ross, would you want to add any closing comment or – you’re also allowed to pass. (Laughs.)

    MR. : (Off mic.)

    MR. WILSON: All right, terrific. So I’ll – let me turn to you, John, Ambassador Bass, as any final sort of comments to close us on this as well.

    AMB. BASS: Sure. Well, I mean, with respect to – it’s a broad question, and given the challenges of the fact-based reality that I was referring to, I would say that it’s important not to take every allegation at face value and – you know, having had an experience of digging into a lot of these over the past three years and discovering that there is a kernel which is blown into, you know, an enormous popcorn kernel as a result. You know, I would say there is – it is less an issue of media freedom and the ability of people to report than it is a question of access to information and the decisions that the major broadcasters are making about the content they choose to show. And in that sense, I hope we will see – and we’ll have to see the results of the initial report of the media monitoring effort which is already under way, which we think is a very constructive step, and we’re going to be providing some complementary monitoring of talk shows and broadcast advertising as well through this period. But I would hope that we will see a broader – again, a broader diversity of perspectives and opinion on the major terrestrial broadcasters from here through the elections.

    MR. WILSON: John, let me just say, to wrap us up here, first of all, thank you so much for doing this. I appreciate, particularly at the end of your tour, coming to offer some real reflections on Georgia. This is a small country with outsize impact here in Washington as well. Any country that has the audacity of a vision, out of the South Caucasus, to say it wants to find itself in NATO and the European Union is a country that we have a stake in the successful outcome of how this plays out.

    And you’re at the pointy edge of the spear, if you will. Being a U.S. ambassador in a country like Georgia is when a U.S. ambassador really matters to the outcome of the developments in that country. I think that’s why so many of us here are so proud that you have been representing the United States there. And that – I think even the conversation we’re having today really reflects how far Georgia has come so that we’re able to have a conversation about elections that meet free and fair standards, the progress towards NATO and the European Union. That, unfortunately, isn’t always the case, as we look into the broader region and into Eurasia.

    So thank you for your service. Thank you for what you’ve done during your time in Tbilisi.

    I also want to thank all of our guests for coming today. We have an incredible reservoir of knowledge and talent in this town on the region, on Georgia. And many are in this room today.

    I particularly want to thank Fran Burwell, Ross Wilson, who helped lead sort of our intellectual effort on many of the issues here at the council, Anna Abroskikiya (sp) and Laura Linderman for helping to put this event together as well. Thank you very much, appreciate your time. (Applause.)

    AMB. BASS: Thank you.

    MR. WILSON: Thank you.

    (END)


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