WASHINGTON -- A former U.S. diplomat says he has never seen Georgia so politically divided and warns that the country could retreat from the democratic progress it has made.
"There is a risk of backsliding. The presidential elections that took place last year were deeply flawed," Kurt Volker, who served as U.S. ambassador to NATO during the Russian-Georgian War in August 2008, told a conference in Washington, D.C. on September 23.
Volker, now the executive director of the McCain Institute, is currently serving as the U.S. special envoy to Ukraine on a volunteer basis.
Volker said Georgia was facing the same kind of divisions in societies caused by out-of-touch elites that other democratic countries are experiencing. The former diplomat said Georgia had enough time to address the political turmoil before it holds parliamentary elections next year.
“Georgia has an opportunity to get it right,” said Volker. As elections are still a year out and there is a new prime minister, it “gives everybody an opportunity to take a breath and focus on a few things."
The South Caucasus country has been rocked by a wave of anti-Russian protests that began in June after a Russian lawmaker sat in the Georgian parliament speaker's seat while addressing a group of officials from predominantly Orthodox Christian countries.
Thousands of people took to the streets, most recently on September 20, to protest against Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire businessman and former prime minister whom critics accuse of ruling the country from behind the scenes. Ivanishvili made his money in the Russian metals and banking industry.
The opposition, antigovernment activists, and their supporters were angered further earlier this month when Georgia's ruling party, Georgian Dream, nominated Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia as the new prime minister.
Gakharia has been the target of opposition anger ever since the police he oversaw in June fired rubber bullets and water cannons at the crowd trying to storm parliament, leaving many injured.
No Georgian political party is supported by more than a fifth of citizens, according to a September 20 poll released by the National Democratic Institute. Georgian Dream received 19 percent while the United National Movement, the leading opposition group, received 9 percent. Nearly six in 10 citizens are undecided. The parliamentary election will be held in October 2020.
"I think it is the most divided I have seen that country," said Volker, who just returned from a trip to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
He told the audience -- which included Western policy advisers, officials, and analysts -- that the United States and Europe must warn the country's politicians -- both pro-government and opposition -- against descending into "tribalism" and encourage them to hold a clean election.
"Make sure that the 2020 parliamentary elections are the freest, fairest, cleanest that have ever taken place in Georgia. That should be the goal," he told the audience.
Volker said Georgia's internal discord made it difficult for allies to help it with its goals and external problems. Georgia is seeking to gain control over two breakaway regions that account for about 20 percent of its territory. Those regions are supported and protected by Russia.
"It is really concerning when you have a country with such important external challenges, such important aspirations and the need for friends and support and engagement. It is hard for outsiders to do that when they are so divided internally," he told the forum, which was organized by the Center for European Policy Analysis.
Volker said the West should encourage Georgian parliamentarians to work on issues they could have greater consensus on, such as EU and NATO aspirations, as well as electoral reform.
"We should be fans of that process. I think we want these parties in parliament to be working together on some higher-order national issues even though they are going to compete in elections on a lot of other issues," he said.