Goodbye, Mr. Bass

On July 4, the US Embassy in Tbilisi celebrated the 256th anniversary of the independence of the United States. Prominent Georgian figures including Secretary of the National Security Council of Georgia, Giga Bokeria, the leader of Christian-Democratic Movement, Giorgi Targamadze and the leader of Georgian Dream Coalition, Bidzina Ivanishvili, attended the reception to honor the day, which was marked by a short speech from the outgoing US Ambassador– John Bass.

The speech given by the Mr. Bass was the last in his current capacity as ambassador. John Bass officially retired from the position of the US Ambassador to Georgia after three years of hard work. He was replaced by Richard Norland who was appointed by the Barack Obama Administration on March 30, 2012.

Bass was appointed as the US Ambassador to Georgia on October 16, 2009, replacing John F. Tefft, who was an appointee of the George W. Bush administration, whose policy towards various former Soviet countries and Georgia in particular, was criticized as being pro-government, rather than pro-democracy.

In an obvious change of this policy, John Bass has been an absolutely different type of US diplomat– especially with regard to media freedom and independence, an issue which has become a headache for local and international observers over the past several years.

John Bass was the first US official who publicly noted that the main Georgian TV news channels, which are generally supportive of the government, were trying to misrepresent his speeches and comments using them for their own benefits. Beginning at the end of 2011, all of his official speeches were professionally translated and subtitled by the US Embassy so no one could change them.

At the same time, because the ambassador was worried about alternative sources of information, he supported the introduction of the ‘Must Carry’ legislation, according to which cable operators are obliged by law to include all news channels in their broadcasting.

Through protecting and supporting alternative sources of information, John Bass sent a clear message to everyone in Georgia that Georgian society must have the opportunity to obtain a wide variety of information sources in order to make a well-informed choice. In all speeches and comments given to the Georgian and foreign media, he emphasized that parliamentary elections set for October 2012 must be free, fair and democratic. He has frequently expressed concerns regarding oppression of Georgian opposition figures and parties.

On darker note however, in the spring of 2011, opposition forces united and held a series of protests against Mikhail Saakashvili’s government. On May 26, Georgian police and Special Forces forcefully broke up the rally to clear space for the ensuing military parade dedicated to Georgia’s Independence Day. John Bass noted that no one has the right to prevent the country from celebrating its independence.

As a result of the violent dispersal at the rally, one Georgian policeman and two civilians died. The former Public Defender, Sozar Subari, who now supports Bidzina Ivanishvili, attributed John Bass’ comments for providing the government a ‘green light’ to violently disperse the political rally.

The process of Richard Norland’s appointment was very interesting: in March of 2012, Republican Congressman, Jim McDermott, introduced a bill The Republic of Georgia Democracy Act 2012. According to the bill, “Democracy in Georgia is facing serious challenges and political freedom and fair competition between political parties is under assault.”

In the same period, several senators brought up the issue at the March 21 nomination hearing for the new U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, Richard Norland. The newly confirmed Ambassador to Georgia was forced to answer unpleasant and annoying questions regarding the issues of human rights violations, the suppression of Georgian opposition parties and media freedom. Richard Norland assured the media that he would definitely use all means at his disposal to convince and encourage the government to hold free, fair and democratic elections. Additionally, he promised to help prevent the Georgian opposition from being sidelined.

All in all, John Bass has definitely played a positive role in Georgian politics. Presently, there is hope that his successor will play an even better role in the process– especially as the country is about to embark on one of its hardest tests of democracy: holding fair and transparent elections.

The original article was published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here. PDF version.

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