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BIPR | Georgia - The Battle for Democracy and Euro-Atlantic Integration
Georgia - The Battle for Democracy and Euro-Atlantic Integration

April 18, 2024 - 15:30

Kelly C. Degnan - Norbert Baas - Irakli Kobalia

Event Recap

On April 18, 2024, the Bologna Institute for Policy Research at Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe hosted a major event titled "Georgia - The Battle for Democracy and Euro-Atlantic Integration." The event featured distinguished speakers such as Kelly C. Degnan, former US Ambassador to Georgia, and Norbert Baas, former German Ambassador to Georgia. SAIS Professor Sergey Radchenko and Irakli Kobalia from Georgia chaired the session.

The seminar began with a detailed account of Georgia's complex history since its independence in 1991, focusing on the brief period of democracy from 1918–1921, subsequent Soviet control, and the ongoing challenges of modern governance. As a new EU candidate, Georgia's democratic evolution is fraught with internal corruption, ruling party resistance to reforms, and external pressures, particularly from neighboring Russia.

Ambassador Baas shared his observations from post-Soviet Georgia's transitional period, during which he witnessed remnants of Soviet-style governance as well as the first steps toward independence. Under President Shevardnadze's leadership a democratic constitution and a new civil law was adopted and the strategic orientation of Georgia was built on strong relations with the EU and the US while at the same time he tried to avoid confrontations with Russia. This was not an easy task since the traditionally Russia-friendly Abkhaz had driven out 200.000 Georgians from Abkhasia, putting a heavy burden on Tbilisi's government severely restricting their political room of manoeuvre. President Saakashvili was at first very successful in restricting corruption but failed to cope with the situation in South Ossetia, which ended in a Russian invasion.

He discussed significant geopolitical shifts, such as Ukraine's surprising nuclear disarmament and Russia's enduring political influence. Baas vividly described his early years in Georgia, including getting accommodated to the sound of nightly gunfire, and Georgia's struggle to establish a structured governance system after a Soviet-dominated past.

Complementing the transatlantic perspective with valuable insights, Ambassador Degnan emphasized Georgia's ongoing fight for sovereignty, as well as its strategic importance as a geopolitical bridge between Central Asia and Europe. She cited the Rose Revolution as an initial but insufficient step toward long-term democratic reforms. Degnan harshly criticized the newly introduced "Foreign Agent" law, which she saw as a fundamental threat to Georgia's vivid civil society and a stumbling block to its EU and NATO ambitions. By re-introducing the bill without debate despite large-scale public protests last year and again this spring, the ruling party showed a dangerous disregard for the will of the people, she noted. In addition, she emphasized the challenges posed by Russian misinformation campaigns in shaping Georgian political discourse.

Ambassador Degnan highlighted the role of oligarchs in shaping Georgian politics. Bidzina Ivanishvili was cited as exerting undue influence over Georgia's political and economic landscape despite not being an elected official. Ambassador Degnan pointed to the ruling party's heavy-handed control of the Parliament, government, and judiciary, and its efforts to discredit civil society and the media, as indications of the erosion of democratic reforms in Georgia.

During the Q&A session, the focus shifted to judicial independence, underscoring the challenges judges face in maintaining impartiality in a politically charged environment. The US remains active to this day in supporting Georgian judges with procedural and other technical training. This brought to light broader governance issues, such as how political agendas and oligarchic control frequently overshadow the rule of law.

The event concluded with reflections on the increasing tension between autocracies and liberal democracies, and the critical need to preserve democratic values. The speakers provided a comprehensive analysis of Georgia's path to democracy, emphasizing both its accomplishments and the significant challenges that continue to shape its political, social, and economic landscape.

Both speakers provided invaluable insights into Georgia's ongoing struggle for democracy and Euro-Atlantic integration, based on their own experience and connections in and to the country. They highlighted the intricate interplay of historical legacies, current geopolitical dynamics, and internal political challenges. The former ambassadors' detailed experiences and analyses helped to provide a more nuanced understanding of the pressures Georgia faces as it strives for a stable and democratic future.

Ambassador Kelly Degnan Remarks


Georgia - The Battle for Democracy and Euro-Atlantic Integration

hosted by Professor Sergey Radchenko

Organized by the Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe Student Government Association
Kelly C. Degnan
Foreign Policy Advisor to the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff; Former U.S. Ambassador to Georgia
Norbert Baas
Former German Ambassador to Georgia, South Korea, Indonesia, ASEAN and East Timor; President of the JHU SAIS German Alumni Association
Irakli Kobalia
Chair - D.I.A. Candidate, SAIS Europe

KELLY DEGNAN

Kelly Degnan served as United States Ambassador to Georgia from 2020-2023. She is a career diplomat with the rank of Minister Counselor. During her 30-year career, Ambassador Degnan served as the Deputy Chief of Mission and Charge d'affaires ad interim at U.S. Embassies in Italy and Kosovo. Her other assignments overseas include NATO, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Botswana. In Washington, D.C., Ambassador Degnan served as the State Department's Deputy Executive Secretary under Secretary John Kerry, as a Special Assistant to Secretary Madeleine Albright, and as a Special Assistant to three Undersecretaries for Political Affairs, Marc Grossman, William Burns, and Nicholas Burns.

Ambassador Degnan earned a degree in journalism from Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism and a law degree from the University of Southern California Law Center. As an attorney, she served as Legal Counsel in the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau while navigating the Pacific on her sailboat. She speaks Italian and French, has studied Turkish and Urdu, and learned basic Georgian.

NORBERT BAAS

Norbert Baas is Former German to the Republic of Korea; Former Ambassador to Indonesia, ASEAN, and East Timor; Special Envoy for Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus at the German Foreign Office. Baas is the Director for Asia-Pacific in the Diplomatic Academy of the Foreign Office, and Senior Advisor at Bohnen Kallmorgen & Partner Berlin. He is the President of the JHU SAIS German Alumni Association.
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