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Media Roundtable in Tbilisi, Georgia

Remarks:  William J. Burns, Deputy Secretary
Tbilisi, Georgia,  October 19, 2011

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: Thank you very much and good afternoon. I am very happy to be here with you today. This is one of my first foreign trips as Deputy Secretary of State, and is a reflection of the high priority that President Obama and Secretary Clinton attach to our partnership with Georgia. The United States is deeply proud of the relationship between our two countries. We have a shared interest in advancing democracy; in strengthening peace and security in this region; and in promoting trade between our countries so that both Americans and Georgians can prosper in the new century that is unfolding before us. I have already had excellent, productive discussions with Foreign Minister Vashadze and National Security Advisor Bokeria. I look forward to meeting President Saakashvili later today. I was also very pleased to meet with political party and civil society leaders earlier today.
Let me just make a few points before taking your questions. First, the American people deeply appreciate Georgia’s contribution of troops to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. I want to personally thank the Georgian people, and especially the families of the soldiers, for their sacrifices and for their assistance to international peace and security. Second, as President Obama has stressed on many occasions, the United Stated remains strongly committed to the full sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally recognized borders. We also continue to fully support Georgia’s aspirations to become a member of NATO, as was reconfirmed at the NATO summit in Lisbon. Third, we want to use the U.S. – Georgia Strategic Partnership Commission to broaden and deepen our cooperation further, including in defense, trade, energy security, strengthening democratic institutions, people to people, and cultural exchanges. Secretary Clinton looks forward to visiting Georgia next year to strengthen the work of the commission. Fourth, through the commission and all of our other contacts, we will do all we can to support Georgia’s emerging democratic institutions and to support the development of a vibrant civil society, a free and independent media, and rule of law based on judicial independence. We urge Georgia to conduct democratic reforms, inclusively and transparently, and to strengthen accountability. We urge Georgia to reform the electoral code and to develop a political environment to ensure free and fair elections over the next two years so that there is a fully democratic transition of power in 2013.
I would be delighted to respond to your questions and thank you again for making time to be here today.

QUESTION: Thank you, I would like to collect your opinion on a few questions, if I may.
Georgia is still facing many challenges, particularly in terms of democratic reforms that become increasingly challenging if keeping in mind pending elections next year. The media is still largely controlled by the government, particularly the electronic outlets, through both financial and administrative leverages, this ultimately results in mostly downright propaganda.
Also there are still many problems in the judiciary – quite a number of court verdicts are politically motivated. Business barely dares to finance opposition parties. Recently, the top political opponent of the ruling party Mr. Ivanishvili, was stripped of his Georgian citizenship under very dubious circumstances. In this context, I am interested in your assessment of what should be agenda for most urging democratic reforms in Georgia?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: Let me make several comments. First, the United States strongly supports the emergence of democratic institutions and a competitive political space in Georgia. We believe that it is deeply in the self-interest of Georgians, as you build a better and more promising future. Second, our focus is on the playing field and not on the players. In that sense, we believe it is extremely important for any democracy and any society, which is building democratic institutions, to focus on the importance of developing a competitive political landscape, where all participants are treated equally and play according to the same rules. That is much easier said than done sometimes, but it is an extremely important goal. That is what we wish for Georgia and that is what we will continue to support here in Georgia. This is particularly true with regard to the importance of developing an independent judiciary and a free and independent media. If you look around the world, it is hard to find any example of a society that is successful in combating a problem like corruption unless you have an independent media and independent judiciary to hold people to account. It is not an easy task and it takes time, but we believe that it is extremely important to be honest and straightforward about the importance of building these institutions.

QUESTION: Thanks for this opportunity. My question is connected with the topic of democratization. Some Georgian people consider that Mikheil Saakashvili is going to remain in the authorities as prime minister after 2013. How do you think, is it possible and in this case what will be the opinion and attitude of U.S. authorities?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: I would like to reinforce the point I made earlier. Our focus in the long-term is on the playing field and not on the players. We believe that it is very important to ensure free and fair elections and an open and transparent electoral process over the next couple of years, so that what Georgians see in 2013 - a very important moment for Georgia’s democracy - is a fully democratic transition of power. That is why it is so important to focus on some of the issues that you and your colleague mentioned earlier, such as on the importance of transparency in financing for the media; ensuring that everyone plays by the same rules; and ensuring that the electoral code is strengthened to ensure a free and fair electoral process.

QUESTION: This October we’re witnessing some activation of a somewhat forgotten topic: granting MAP to Georgia. It was mentioned by President Sarkozy in Tbilisi and in the statements of the U.S. delegation to the NATO Parliamentary assembly. What does that mean for your foreign policy trends towards Georgia? Is the idea now supported more by western Europeans than in 2008?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: The United States continues to strongly support Georgia’s aspirations to become a member of NATO. This was most recently reaffirmed at the Lisbon NATO summit. The issue of MAP, as you well know, is a decision that all the Allies in NATO have to make. We will continue to support Georgia’s aspirations to become a member of NATO, just as we support Georgia’s aspirations to integrate more fully into Euro-Atlantic institutions more generally. To return to earlier questions, Georgia can invest in its future and make an even stronger case for itself on the value of integration into the Euro-Atlantic community by developing, over the next several years, the kind of democratic process that the people of Georgia deserve. That is in many ways one of the best advertisements for Georgia’s integration into the Euro-Atlantic community and we will remain strongly supportive of that. Thank you all very much.