U.S. Ambassador John Tefft (InterPressNews)
TBILISI -- It's been a rocky season for Georgia. But John Tefft, who has served as the U.S. ambassador to Tbilisi since July 2005, says Washington remains committed to the country as parliamentary elections and a critical NATO summit approach.
Tefft, who spoke to RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau chief Marina Vashakmadze, has been Washington's man on the ground throughout the recent political crisis, which began with President Mikheil Saakashvili's forceful quashing of antigovernment protests in November and his narrow victory in the early presidential election in January.
Now, as the opposition squares off against Saakashvili ahead of the spring parliamentary vote, Tefft acknowledges that many Georgians are under the impression that the United States supports "just the Saakashvili government." But he begs to differ, saying Washington is urging both sides to stay engaged in dialogue.
"Fundamentally the future of Georgian democracy depends on both sides, the opposition and the party in power, being able to find out and resolve these problems themselves," he says. "At some point the situation may turn and the opposition may be the party in power, so developing a set of rules, the rules of the game, a political culture, this is really one of the things that's happening right now."
A Better Vote
Tefft is also spearheading efforts to ensure the April parliamentary vote gets a cleaner bill of health than the presidential election in January, which earned tentative approval from Western observers, but left many in the Georgian opposition crying foul.
The U.S. Embassy is now involved in voter-education campaigns and party and media training meant to secure a free and fair vote. Tefft says the embassy will also participate in a parallel vote tally -- an element he considers critical.
"As you know, in the last election ISFED [the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy] used a very careful scientific model, and in the end concluded that President Saakashvili had won reelection with 50.8 percent of the vote" -- a slightly lower margin than official results, but a definitive win nonetheless.
Tefft adds, "Different people have different views, I know, but in fact, that's what the scientific study did and we put a lot of stock in that, and we will again fund or partially fund -- with our EU partners -- that parallel vote tally for these parliamentary elections."
Another critical April engagement is the NATO summit in Bucharest. Georgia, like Ukraine, had been hoping to earn a boost in its admission bid with a Membership Action Plan -- a goal that may have been derailed by the November crisis.
Tefft says there has been "no change" in U.S. support for Georgia getting a plan.
"I don't know as we speak what will happen at the Bucharest summit in April. There are lots of discussions going on, many of them took place this weekend in Munich at the [February 9-10] security conference there. We'll just have to see," he says. "But getting back and firmly on the democratic path is really a critical part of Georgia's establishing that it is in fact a good candidate to be a member of NATO and to contribute to NATO."
Recent press reports in "The Washington Post" have speculated that Tefft -- who earlier served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow -- may once again return to the Russian capital, to replace outgoing Ambassador William Burns. It would be a significant move, given the difficult ties between Tbilisi and Moscow. For now, Tefft says, any talk of a move is premature.
"It was speculation, press speculation. Nobody has called me about that," he says. "In fact, I was last year extended for an additional year. Usually, ambassadors are for three years in a country, and I've been extended for a fourth. So my sense is that I'm going to be here through the summer of 2009."