Mr. Co-Chairman, I visited Georgia in September 1991 with a Congressional Delegation and I am sure that nobody who took part in that trip will ever forget it. I applaud your holding these hearings on a country about which we have been reading a lot lately. Unfortunately, the coverage has focused on serious domestic and foreign problems. To begin with the former, The New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor published troubling articles on the ongoing violence against religious minorities and NGOs, whereas the Washington Post recently reported on President Shevardnadze=s slipping position in the country.
Politicians, of course, come and go - even those such as Eduard Shevardnadze, who has played an indisputably important role in recent history. But Georgia is more than one politician-statesman and that is why we are so concerned about the overall trends. Whether in regard to elections, corruption, abductions, conflict resolution and general stability, Georgia often seems on the wrong track - sometimes, in fact, Georgia seems to be headed off the tracks entirely.
Surely President Shevardnadze, who well understands the value of an international reputation, sees the harm done to Georgia=s image and position by the continuing campaign of violence against religious minorities. It is frankly mystifying to me why the assaults continue. Is Georgia=s Government incapable of acting against hooligans who attack defenseless members of another faith? Or even worse, is Georgia=s Government unwilling to protect all its citizens, as Georgia=s law and OSCE commitments demand?
The other subject that has drawn much attention is the alleged presence of terrorists in Georgia=s Pankisi Gorge, both al-Qaeda and Chechen fighters fleeing from Russia. Russian generals and President Putin have offered assistance in hunting them down, and have insisted on participating in the effort, claiming that Georgia cannot manage on its own. While Georgia surely has a way to go in developing modern, well-equipped military forces, any Russian incursion into Georgia would only worsen the situation and possibly destabilize the entire region.
In this connection, I would like to observe that in the context of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the U.S. Delegation has tried to help Georgia cope with Russian attempts at intimidation. Most recently, at the Annual Meeting in July in Berlin, we supported the Georgians= effort to include the Abkhazia issue on the agenda as a Aquestion of urgency.@
In conclusion, we have real concerns about domestic issues in Georgia. As friends of Georgia, we are obligated to raise these issues with Tbilisi in a spirit of constructive criticism.
Nevertheless, let there be no misunderstanding. When it comes to Georgia=s sovereignty and territorial integrity, there is no more ardent supporter than the United States. That has been the case for the last ten years and it will be the case in the future as well.