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Georgia: U.S. Official Sees Need For 'Serious Change,' Reconciliation

Matthew Bryza (file) (AFP) Following the inauguration of President Mikheil Saakashvili to a second term on January 20, RFE/RL's Georgian Service Director David Kakabadze spoke to Matthew Bryza, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, in Tbilisi about the disputed presidential election, continuing opposition protests, and what he expects to see in Georgia in the coming months.

RFE/RL: The two months since the November 7 dispersal of demonstration protests have been quite eventful here in Georgia. What is your assessment of the developments in Georgia during these past weeks?

Matthew Bryza: It was a very difficult situation, as every Georgian knows, in November. Our assessment is that the leadership here -- in the government and, hopefully, in the opposition as well -- took a deep breath, looked at the situation and realized there needed to be some serious change.

And, in fact, it was the electorate who made that statement on January 5. And we analyze the results and see that -- as far as we can tell and based on serious analysis that our embassy conducted -- there were irregularities of concern but there was no systematic attempt we saw to use massive fraud to change the result of the election. And that's after our own intensive and objective research and that's why we're happy to celebrate the inauguration of President Saakashvili.

But at the same time those serious irregularities and the mood in the population that was almost split 50-50 between supporters and opponents of the president, all that indicates the need to improve the electoral procedures till the parliamentary elections [in the spring] and to have this government continue reconnecting with all of the population, in fact, as the president said in his inaugural speech today. He talked about the need to bring the benefits of reform and economic growth to all the people of Georgia. So, it's as if the country has gone through a very difficult cycle that will continue. And we'll have the next big moments occurring during the parliamentary election.

RFE/RL: You mentioned the president's inaugural speech, which lasted for almost 40 minutes. What were the main points of the address for you, as a listener?

Bryza: As a subjective American listener, one who cares deeply about this country and our relations with it, what I heard, was, No. 1, a call for tolerance and reconciliation between the government and the opposition, between and among all ethnic groupings. He made a point to talk about all the various regions with important ethnic minorities and between Georgia and Russia. Those were very significant conciliatory and -- more than conciliatory -- forward-looking statements.

The second set of themes besides reconciliation was the need to, again, bring the benefits of economic reform and economic growth to all the people, especially in the rural areas of Georgia. We heard about his three-part and 50-day plan to really begin the process of bringing the benefits to the people in the regions.

And from our perspective in Washington, that is wonderful news. These are subjects we've long discussed with him. I remember President [George W.] Bush's speech right out here, down the road on the Freedom Square, where he talked at length about the importance of tolerance and interethnic harmony as a cornerstone of democracy. And he talked about the need to strengthen democratic institutions and allow the opposition to flourish, not just be tolerated. And I think I heard those same messages in the speech today.

RFE/RL: President Saakashvili said that he is going to strengthen ties with Russia and do everything possible to make these relations better. Did you have a chance to talk to Russian officials on this issue? Do you see any prospects for these relations to become really good or, at least, better than they currently are?

Bryza: I did have a chance to speak with some very senior Russian officials here and I did sense there's a real chance to improve the relationship. What I sensed was that, on the Georgian side, there is a real commitment to putting in place concrete steps to improve the relationship and to elaborate the plan of action. It's not a desperation, it's not an urgency but it's a recognition that life can improve for all Georgians if there's that positive path.

And I sensed from my discussions with a couple of Russian officials a readiness to pursue that same sort of agenda. Now the challenge is, of course, to find concrete steps and programs, on which both sides can agree.

Something that will be very difficult to agree on is Georgia's NATO aspirations. This is something Russia does not like at all. Do you think this can change in the near future?

Bryza: Well, that's certainly a question for [Russian Foreign]Minister [Sergei] Lavrov or Deputy [Foreign] Minister [Grigory] Karasin, not for me. I have no way of answering that.

All I can say is what my government's policy is, and that is that we fully support Georgia's NATO aspirations, as expressed by a strong majority -- nearly three-quarters of the Georgian population -- in the referendum that just took place. So we believe that it's important to keep our focus on our strategic objectives, and helping Georgia achieve its aspirations to become a NATO member is one of our strategic objectives. But so is an improvement of Georgian-Russian relations. So regardless of what some people may think in Moscow or any other capital, we want to pursue both of these objectives and we'll continue to.

RFE/RL: We've been hearing quite a lot of criticism from the opposition and also from some analysts that the United States is supporting personalities rather than institutions in Georgia. What is your response to that?

I'm glad you asked me. You are too polite and kind to say there's been a lot of criticism of me. I, as a representative of my government, have a deep love of Georgia that dates way back to the 1990s, back to the time when now-President Saakashvili was a parliamentarian. And that deep affection that we all in the United States government feel for Georgia, has everything to do with Georgian people but nothing to do with any individual Georgian person.

The Georgian people and the American people and our governments truly have shared values, again, as you heard about in President Saakashvili's speech today. I make a point out of duty and out of pleasure to meet with members of the opposition every time I'm here. And with civil society, and with government officials....

I think, it's absolutely false to say that we support only one person in this country when, in fact, we support democracy, the entire development of democracy and all of democracy's components, which, of course, includes the opposition. I think, our friends in the opposition know better and, frankly, I'm surprised as to why some would want to mischaracterize the nature of our relations, which are quite strong and warm.

In parallel with the inauguration ceremony, a protest rally took place just a few kilometers from Rustaveli Avenue. It was organized by the opposition and attended by several thousand people, according to some estimates even by tens of thousands. The leaders, addressing the crowd, called this inauguration illegitimate, saying that President Saakashvili is not the legitimate leader of the country. Did the opposition politicians you've been meeting here in Tbilisi articulate this claim in talks with you and, if yes, what did you answer?

Out of respect to them, I prefer not to comment on specific contents of any specific meeting. But I can say in general: I've seen these statements from them and, of course, they've been saying them for some time. And our response in general is: It's time to get beyond those sorts of claims that President Saakashvili's reelection is not legitimate.

There are several heads of state here, who were standing right out there in front of the parliament, proclaiming the legitimacy of this election. They would not have come here, had they not viewed this election as legitimate. President Bush would not have called President Saakashvili last Monday [January 14], after a very careful and lengthy analysis about the freeness and fairness of the election if he had not viewed the election as legitimate.

So people are entitled to have their opinion, they can claim forever if they wish that the election was not legitimate, and demonstrate. They have a right to do so. But from my government's perspective it is time to move forward, it's time to accept the results and prepare for parliamentary elections, and improve the election procedures. That election needs to be much better than this last one was -- in the conduct of the campaign, in the election and postelection period. But from our perspective -- and I think we officially say it by virtue of being at the inauguration -- it was a legitimate election.

Did you tell President Saakashvili that the next election has to be better than the last one?

President Saakashvili, I think, is well aware of our view that there needs to be improvement. I said it in the press yesterday, I am saying it to you now. I am too humble to assume he reads whatever I might say in the press but I think he is very aware of where our government's views lie and he has a close and extremely positive relationship with our excellent ambassador here, John Tefft.

There is not much time left till the next election. Do you think the current heated situation will calm down or the things will escalate in the next few months?

Well, I can't predict the future but I feel positive momentum. In what I heard from the president today in his speech and what I felt from the opposition leaders yesterday, despite their continuing anger, which is understandable -- we had a lot of anger in America when President Bush was first elected but we've gotten beyond that -- despite all of those intense feelings, I sense new momentum.

It will be turbulent, there will be demonstrations and yelling and shouting but I also feel that on the government side, the leadership here recognizes that there really needs to be some significant change. Change in personalities perhaps -- that's something people have been rumoring about on television here, I don't have any insights into that. But I certainly have insights, I think, into the change in policy that seems to be contemplated. And, again, we heard about that in the inaugural address today.

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