The U.S. Senate confirmed Richard Norland as the new ambassador to Georgia on March 29. A Foreign Service veteran, who worked in Georgia in the early 1990s in the capacity of the U.S. representative and acting head of the OSCE Mission to Georgia, will replace John Bass, the incumbent U.S. ambassador serving in Tbilisi since 2009. Norland has spent most of his 32 years of diplomatic service on U.S. relations with Russia and other former Soviet states. In different periods, he was a political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Latvia, and U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan.
A week before the U.S. Senate confirmed his candidacy, Norland, in his capacity of ambassador-designate, delineated the priority areas of U.S.–Georgia cooperation and expressed certain concerns about Georgia’s democracy performance at a nomination hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The diplomat started his speech by appraising Georgia as a “reliable partner,” in reference to President Obama’s remarks earlier in 2012 that Georgia had achieved exceptional progress in modernizing state institutions and shaping a democratic state. Norland stressed two main lines of priorities. The first covered security affairs intertwining NATO integration and U.S.–Georgia defense cooperation, while the second referred to democracy with a clear focus on the forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in Georgia.
Speaking on security-related issues; Norland restated the U.S. commitment to Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. He said that for the U.S., objecting to the presence of Russian troops in the occupied territories was a “matter of principle” and that Washington would keep trying to convince the Kremlin to observe its obligations under the 2008 agreement. Prominence was also given to Georgia’s contribution to the International Security Assistance Force mission and U.S. support for Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration. In this regard, Norland said that the U.S. administration was making considerable efforts to use the Alliance’s upcoming summit in Chicago as an opportunity to highlight Georgia’s progress toward becoming a NATO member. Washington will also “work with the Allies to develop a consensus on the next steps forward” for Georgia, Norland said.
Touching upon defense cooperation issues, the ambassador-designate said that military relations between two countries regained momentum after U.S.-Georgian Presidents held talks in January 2012. Washington has approved the sale of M4 Carbine assault rifles to Georgia and would continue to contribute to the process of Georgia’s military modernization and self-defense capability enhancement, he said. Strong security ties with Georgia remains a high priority for the U.S., Norland added.
He also emphasized the process of building democratic institutions in Georgia and their consistency with Euro-Atlantic standards. The 2012 parliamentary and 2013 presidential elections appear to be a “litmus test” for Georgian democracy, and offer a great opportunity for Tbilisi “to realize its first peaceful and fully democratic transfer of power,” he said. Although Georgia has achieved a genuine progress on its way to become a fully democratic country, the recent actions of Georgia’s state audit agency – Chamber of Control – regarding the funding of opposition parties, caused real concerns in Georgia and internationally, Norland said in response to Democratic Senator Ben Cardin’s question regarding the oppositions’ allegations that they were excluded from the opportunity to take part in fair competition for the upcoming elections. The U.S. administration should monitor Georgia’s adherence to democratic principles and make sure that the financial assistance allocated to Georgia will contribute to the strengthening of civil society and rule of law in the country, Norland said.
The diplomat’s remarks became the subject of deliberations by officials and politicians in Moscow and Tbilisi. In response to the opposition parties’ overstated reaction to the concerns that the ambassador-designate expressed during the nomination hearing, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia, Grigol Vashadze said that “he [Richard Norland] just answered the questions and correspondingly, these words have no political meaning so far.” Vashadze added that bilateral relations between Georgia and the U.S. draw on the Strategic Partnership Charter, which is not affected by the person appointed as ambassador. The spokesperson of tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream Movement, Maia Fanjikidze, accused the Minister of downplaying the political significance of Norland's statement and said that Vashadze underestimated the diplomat’s massage as it did not place the government in favorable light.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin reacted negatively to the statement of the ambassador-designate on the renewal of exports of M4 Carbine assault rifles to Georgia. The Russian foreign ministry spokesman, Alexander Lukashevich, said on March 27 that “any U.S. military cooperation with Georgia is fraught with rather grave consequences for peace and stability in Caucasus.” Whereas Norland's remarks raised a fresh wave of considerations, few novelties regarding either military cooperation or democracy and fair elections were aired in his statement. However, the frequent repetition of the fact that the conduct of elections will be closely watched and monitored by Washington indicates that the U.S. is highly interested in the maturity of Georgian democracy which can only be demonstrated through a peaceful transfer of power in Georgia.