U.S. Ambassador In Hot Water For Comments On Abkhazia, South Ossetia
The U.S. ambassador to Georgia has sparked controversy with comments that criticized Georgia's policy, in the early days of independence, toward the minority populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Ambassador Richard Norland was speaking to a group of students at Tbilisi State University on November 15, and was asked about the possibility of Georgia regaining control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. His comments, apparently recorded by someone at the event, included the following:
If you ask me about my personal opinion I can tell you that when I was in Georgia 20 years ago I saw that Georgians were treating Abkhazians and Ossetians the same way as Russians were treating Georgians and Georgia will have to apologize for the mistakes of the past.
This isn't an especially controversial statement; Georgians frequently express similar sentiments as they rue the mistakes that were made in the 1990s that contributed to the loss of those territories. But it's apparently too sensitive for the U.S. ambassador to say such a thing in public. In American politics Norland's statement would be called a "gaffe," which is when a political figure accidentally tells the truth. And the predictable result was that Georgian officials lined up to criticize Norland's remarks, and Norland was forced to backtrack.
Some of the Georgian responses, from a report on Georgian television station Rustavi-2 (via BBC Monitoring):
Paata Davitaia, the leader of the European Democrats party, was quite tough. "Georgians do not have to apologize to anyone. It is representatives of the Russian Federation, its special services, and separatists, who should apologize to the mothers of all those heroes, who sacrificed their lives for Georgia's territorial integrity, and the civilians, who fell victim to ethnic cleansing, because they were Georgians," Rustavi-2 showed Davitaia saying. "If we have to apologize, how can the US ambassador come to the Heroes Square and lay wreaths to the fighters, who died defending Georgia's territorial integrity," Davitaia added and urged Norland to refrain from such statements and expressed confidence that what Norland said was his personal opinion, not that of the United States.
"I would like to remind some ambassadors in Georgia of the existence of the Vienna Convention, which sets forth strict frames for their rights and obligations. I would like to express hope that if this statement is confirmed, Washington will immediately make very prompt decisions," former Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze told Rustavi-2.
The next day, the U.S. embassy in Tbilisi issued a statement by Norland somewhat weakly explaining that his comments weren't supposed to be public:
"There was a so called 'quote' was taken out of context. It was not a policy speech, but part of a frank and thought-provoking academic discussion with students. It was an isolated statement during an hour and 20 minute-long exchange. U.S. policy has not changed with regards to the occupied territories. As Georgians know I myself witnessed first-hand the suffering experienced 20 years ago. Mistakes were made on all sides. But nothing justifies the forced expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Georgians from their homes, or the occupation of sovereign Georgian territory...
This was a discussion with students. Actually it was off the record and it was secret recording. I’m actually surprised and I’m not sure the quotes [published in the press] are accurate."
Anyway, not everyone in Georgia criticized Norland. According to the Rustavi-2 report, reintegration minister Paata Zakareishvili downplayed his statement:
"The United States is Georgia's friend. If there is any country that unambiguously and clearly stood side by side with Georgia in its most difficult period, it was first and foremost the United States. Therefore, we should accept in a worthy and reasonable manner both positive assessments and those assessments that we may not like very much."
U.S.-Georgian relations may not be quite as tight as they were in the mid-2000s -- don't expect a major street in Tbilisi to be named after Barack Obama -- but Georgia is still the U.S.'s closest partner in the part of the world, by far, and Georgia's government knows it. So chalk this up to a little tough love.