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John Tefft: The goals Georgia has are in many ways the same goals the US has

By Etuna Tsotniashvili
Friday, August 7
John F. Tefft was appointed as United States Ambassador to Georgia on July 28, 2005. Prior to this he had been a career Foreign Service Officer for thirty-three years. Ambassador Tefft has previously served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, responsible for U.S. relations with Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova.

In less than a month his term as Ambassador expires, but Mr. Tefft promises that he and his spouse will be frequent visitors to Georgia in future because they have a lot of friends here and are fascinated by our country. The Messenger wishes Mr. Tefft a prosperous future career and will alway welcome his visits to Georgia.

The Messenger visited Mr. Tefft at his Embassy to hear his assessment of his four years work as Ambassador.

What is the most important contribution you think your Embassy and you personally have made during your term of office?

I think we’ve been a steadfast friend of Georgia and the people of Georgia. We have worked very, very hard over the four years I have been here, and in the years before that under my predecessors, to do everything to help Georgia become a modern, democratic, market oriented, rule of law nation, and this is obviously still a work in progress. I think Vice President Biden made the point that democracy is something we all keep working at all the time, and obviously there are some things that Georgia has succeeded at but there are a lot of other things where you still have work to do, again as the Vice President said. But as I look back I think we’ve done a lot of things to help push a number of issues in the right direction. Our assistance programmes I think have been good, in the sense that we have helped Georgia in a whole range of areas, and by this I mean economic development, rule of law development, democracy development, healthcare.

There’s a lot of specific programmes that I’m particularly very proud of. I will give you one example: we were very helpful to our Georgian friends in dealing with the scourge of trafficking in persons. This isn’t an issue that makes it to the front page of The Messenger, but it is a horrible, horrible crime. The fact is that Georgia is high in our categorisation of countries in this area, because it has passed laws, arrested people who have trafficked in persons, put them in jail and developed systems and facilities to take care of those who have been trafficked. Georgia has a very good record on that. This is something we’ve worked at privately, but it’s the sign of a modern society, and Georgia frankly does better at this than most other countries.

That’s just one example but I could give you many many others that I’m proud of, things that help the development of this country in the right direction.

Is there anything which you regret you were unable to achieve as Ambassador to Georgia?

You know, one always has regrets, one always wonders whether one could do different things. The bigger issues of war and peace, settlements in the conflict regions, these are not things which I or this Embassy could deal with alone, these are big global issues which are above all of us - I regret the war, I wish that all of the people who died or were injured hadn’t been, but I also recognise what a difficult problem this is and the solution to this problem is not just here in Georgia.

President Obama stated his respect for Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty during his visit to Moscow but Russia still occupies around 1/5 of Georgian territory. Are there any plans to activate mechanisms for making Russia fulfill its commitments under the Sarkozy-Medevedev six-point ceasefire agreement?

Well, I think you remember that in the speech Vice President Biden gave to the Parliament he was quite clear that Russia had not complied with its obligations under the agreement negotiated by President Sarkozy. Following up on the specifics of that is obviously President Sarkozy’s responsibility, it was his agreement, but we would certainly support efforts to get Russia to comply fully, this to include withdrawing their troops, which they committed themselves to doing in that agreement.

I think we are also not satisfied with this week’s events, this past weekend’s events, as things aren’t working correctly. Our Georgian friends said they tried to call Russia on the hotline but the Russians didn’t answer the phone. The Russians also didn’t come to the response mechanism meeting that was held last week. We think those kind of things are absolutely critical to reducing tension and putting out disputes along the line, who is shooting and who, and basically trying to stop that. So more work needs to be done here as well.

There has been talk about US observers being deployed in the Georgian conflict regions alongside EU observers. What information do you have on this?

Well, the European Union has to make a decision about that. As I understood the statements made by Foreign Minister Bildt of Sweden, which is currently the President of the EU, they have extended the EUMM mandate for another year, and this additional question will be addressed before any others.

How would you assess US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Georgia?

I think it was pretty good visit. I thought he managed to convey American policy to the Government, opposition and civil society, and most of all to the people of Georgia. The speech that he gave to the Parliament was I thought quite clear, he said that he was here with “a simple straightforward message - we, in the United States, stand by you on your journey to a secure, free, democratic and once again united Georgia.” Very succinct, but very clear. He made it clear that resetting the relationship with Russia will not come at the expense of Georgia, and he made it clear that the partnership between the Unites States and Georgia rests of the foundation of shared democratic values, and that we’ll continue to work on this. He mentioned specifically that “President Saakashvili told Parliament earlier this week that there will be further work done and we expect that he will keep that commitment,” but there is much more to be done and I think he was quite clear, certainly in private, when talking about those things. So this dual sense of both supporting Georgia, its independence, its sovereignty, its territorial integrity, and also supporting Georgia on this “journey” as he describes it toward being a real democratic, market-oriented, rule of law state is really what American policy has been about and continues to be about with the Obama administration.

Analysts here say that as Russia only recognises the policy of force and aggression it should be adequately responded to by the West, not with force but sanctions, so that Russia understands that breaking international law will have negative results. What do you think about this?

I think that we have a process now of trying, to use the famous term, ‘reset’ our relationship. We’re trying to negotiate a follow-on to the START Agreement reducing the number of weapons, and we’re trying to do this at a time when obviously we disagree with Russia on some fundamentals, for example their treatment of their neighbours, and we’ve staked out with the Administration, I speak now as the President’s representative, that we will not compromise on the fundamental principles and values that we’ve stated. But I really don’t want to go any further in describing what the Administration’s policy towards Russia might be. I’m Ambassador to Georgia, not Russia, I try to be very careful not to comment on this.

What would you say about Georgia’s NATO aspirations? Our leaders say they have received the message from [new Secretary General] Rasmussen’s speech that Georgia will be accepted into NATO in his term.

I think the Bucharest Declaration was quite clear – Georgia and Ukraine will be members of NATO. My message to my Georgian friends is that they need to work hard, and we’re going to continue to work with them through our assistance programmes to help develop a modern NATO-capable, EU-interoperable military force. We will soon be beginning training a Georgian battalion which will go with UN forces to southern Afghanistan. That will be a major additional step beyond what Georgia’s military has done in the past, they’ll be part of a larger NATO operation there, and I think in terms of the larger political decision about timing, and when Georgia actually becomes a member, it is impossible to predict at this particular point exactly how that will go. But I would just again reiterate what the Vice President said when he was here, that “we fully support Georgia’s aspiration to join NATO.” So the job of this Embassy, which will still be its job when the new Ambassador is in place, is to continue to help our Georgian friends at the Ministry of Defence, and help Georgia develop the kind of democracy as well which will help it become a good, solid member of NATO.

I certainly hope you have chances to join, I and my colleagues work every day here on the assumption that Georgia will become a member and that we will do everything we can to help our friends be ready for that.

As the anniversary of the August War approaches the situation has become tense in the conflict zone. Do you expect Russia will commit further aggression?

I certainly hope not. There’s a lot of tension, there’s been some shooting as far as I know at positions in Georgia from the Ossetian side. We, the United States, have been very active diplomatically trying to reduce tension and to try to encourage both sides to reduce the public rhetoric. As we speak (Wednesday, 10.30) I don’t see any evidence of any war, I certainly hope and pray that that’s the case.

What do you think about the draft amendments to the laws on manifestations and protest rallies?

I have looked at this carefully, and my staff has, and we’ve talked to our friends in the European Union. I am happy that the Venice Commission is going to take a look at this, because there’s been some controversy about whether it complies with European standards or not, and there’s specifically controversy over the question of adding the penalites, the additional time in jail for people convicted of administrative procedure offences. I think we will wait and see what the Venice Commission says, and if they make recommendations the Government has said it will make changes in the law. That’s where we stand at this point.

Do you think people will be more afraid of taking to the streets?

You know, when this came out I looked at the American law, the law of Washington DC, and our law gives the District of Columbia city and police very great leeway as to how they keep public order. I don’t want to get into the specific terms of this, but some of my European diplomatic friends think that most of the provisions of this law are very consistent with European practice. This is why the Venice Commission is there – these are experts who will be able to act as an independent panel to give judgment to the Georgian Government and the people of Georgia.

Recently Georgia has seen over 100 days of protest rallies. What do you think are the opposition’s chances of achieving their goal?

I don’t think President Saakashvili ever had a plan to resign, and he still doesn’t. I think that what we are working for is to try and build a better democracy here. We are very active through working with the National Democratic Institute to build an electoral law which will help Georgia have solid elections which will help everyone accept them and which will run smoothly. We also will continue our work here with the International Republican Institute in party training for opposition parties, as we’ve done in the past. We want to see the growth and development of democratic institutions that will serve the people of Georgia, serve democracy here.

Many of the opposition are former members of Saakashvili’s team. Why do you think they are no longer with him?

Well I don’t want to get into analysis, but you can go to any democracy and find people who once were allies who have broken away. I think there’s different views in Georgia, the former Foreign Minister, the former Ambassador, they all have different views, and they’re certainly entitled to those views. What I think the United States wants to see develop in Georgia is what I call a normal democracy, where Governments are elected by the people through free and fair elections, where power changes hands smoothly and fairly, where people can change their mind – if they want a different Government they can vote one in - where the rights of individuals are respected and the rule of law prevails. That’s what we will continue to support, and both the Embassy and my Government, both under the Bush and Obama Administrations, have pushed for this very hard and I believe will continue to do so when the new Ambassador takes over.

President Bush once called Georgia a beacon of democracy. Is the beacon shining as well as it could be?

Georgia is a developing democracy in this part of the world. Georgia has accomplished a lot, but there’s a lot of work that can still be done. As I talk to people around Georgia and look at the polls that are being done, that’s what people want, they want to see the peaceful development of democracy in their country. People want to see the Government take action over various problems but in a peaceful, democratic way.

Is there any message you want to convey to the readers of this newspaper?

All of us at the Embassy read your newspaper every day and believe it to be informed, but I think I would just say that the United States has, does and will continue to support the development of this country as the people of Georgia want it to develop. The goals Georgia has are in many ways the same goals the US has. We are fortunate to see a concurrence of our broader goals, and that’s what the US under the Obama Administration will continue to work for.