- - Monday, December 23, 2019

In less than one year, the people of Georgia will vote in parliamentary elections. The nation faces continued Russian threats and aggression while it solidifies its Western pivot embracing pro-growth economic policies and strengthening its democratic institutions.

U.S. support for Georgia remains unwavering, an essential backstop in a geography strategically significant to Western interests. As a gateway to the Caucuses and Central Asia, Georgia is strategically significant. Bordered by Russia to the north, the Black Sea to the west, and Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan to the south and east, it occupies valuable real estate.

Linking the Caspian, Aegean and Mediterranean basins, Georgia’s multiple Black Sea ports serve as vital transport links between Eurasia and the Atlantic. Georgia sits at the nexus of energy flows from the Caspian Sea region to the West. As a result of its position at the center of the New Silk Road and East-West trading corridors, Georgia has emerged as a focal point of great power competition.

Georgia is also among the most pro-American and democratic states in Eastern Europe. The country witnesseda peaceful transfer of power by the ballot box in 2012, and it has held free and fair elections since. Georgia receives high marks in virtually all indices of transparency, rule of law, media freedom, development of political party development and accountability.

About a month ago, the Georgian Parliament failed to pass the law to change the electoral system from the current mixed one (majority and proportionate) to a purely proportionate representation, something that the ruling bloc Georgian Dream promised the opposition last summer.

Political conflict between the majority and the opposition triggered demonstrations in the capital Tbilisi, sometimes violent. The Georgian Dream promised to transition the country to the proportionate representation by 2024, but is demanding a dialogue with the opposition, not violence, that only benefits Russia. Unlike many European countries, nearly 90 percent of its population calls the United States a friend. More than 70 percent supports NATO and European integration. Of all our coalition partners in Afghanistan, Georgia has suffered the highest casualty rate and remains there today with the largest deployment relative to the size of its military.

Georgia’s leaders continue to chart a positive path forward. According to The Heritage Foundation’s annual Index of Economic Freedom, Georgia has gone from 124th in 1996 to 16th in 2018. The Georgian economy expanded by nearly 4 percent on average between 2015 and 2018, and real GDP growth is projected to reach up to 5 percent in 2019.

Pro-growth policies, including far-reaching capital market reforms and tax incentives, initiated by Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia have attracted significant foreign direct investment (FDI).

Nevertheless, important policy challenges await Georgia’s new government in 2020. Even though 80 percent of Georgians polled support full EU membership and 72 percent favor joining NATO, full integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions remains seductively elusive. For example, the EU signed Association Agreement with Georgia in 2014 that provides for closer economic and political ties, but recent declarations by French President Emmanuel Macron show that the EU has little appetite for the kind of enlargement that would bring Georgia fully into the European Union.

Russian forces and their proxies continue to occupy 20 percent of Georgia’s territory. Russian tourism accounts for almost 8 percent of Georgian GDP; and Russia is Georgia’s second-largest source of remittances.

Georgian actors seeking to obstruct the functioning of the nation’s democratic institutions and promote instability provide Russia an opportunity for more meddling. It is importantthat these political actors heed the State Department’s call for all parties to return to the political process, and avoid violent demonstrations.

In charting their future course, Georgians can be certain of at least one constant: the strong and abiding support of the United States. On Oct. 23, the House of Representatives passed the Georgia Support Act, which reaffirms U.S. support for Georgia’s sovereignty, recognizes its commitment to democratic values and opposes Russian aggression.

In addition to visits to Tbilisi by Vice President Mike Pence and then-National Security Adviser John Bolton, President Trump has signed legislation declaring Georgia’s breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia to be Russian-occupied territories and banning financial support for any country recognizing their independence.

Courageous statesmanship and political dexterity will be in high demand as Georgia navigates the multiple challenges of an assertive Russia, a distracted Europe and a turbulent global economy.

J. Adam Ereli served as U.S. ambassador to the Kingdom of Bahrain and deputy State Department spokesman.

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