Interview | Damon Wilson, President of the National Endowment for Democracy

In Tbilisi today, Civil Georgia’s Editor-in-Chief Otar Kobakhidze sat down with Damon Wilson, the President, and CEO of the National Endowment for Democracy to discuss Georgia’s EU and NATO integration, the role of civil society and independent media for the Georgian democracy, as well as how country’s politics is seen in Washington DC. For the last couple of years, NED has been one of the key donors of

Damon, thank you so much for the interview. First of all, what is NED doing in Georgia? And most importantly, why is it doing it? 

First of all, it’s a pleasure to be with you today, but it’s a real pleasure to be back in Georgia. It’s my first trip to Georgia as President of the National Endowment for Democracy since coming here first time since the pandemic. I’m a long-time champion and friend of Georgia, the Georgian people. But it’s the first visit as president of the National Endowment for Democracy. I wanted to come here early in my tenure at the Endowment because what happens here is important for the future of freedom and democracy. The Endowment essentially is America’s foundation for freedom and democracy. We are publicly funded by the U.S. Congress but set up as a private foundation — a private institution to support democracy and freedom around the world. That takes shape by the support that we provide for civil society, and independent media, but also through what we call our core institutes — the NED family that’s present here in Georgia, the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the Solidarity Center, and the Center for International Private Enterprise. And it represents a NED commitment understanding that our own diversity in the United States and our own democracy, these forces come together at the Endowment to support democratic values and institutions around the world — Republicans, Democrats, business, and labor in the United States working together to support grassroots civil society, democratic institutions, and values. The Endowment is that expression and we’re proud to have a long history of supporting the Georgian people and their democratic aspirations. And I’m here to listen, to learn from our partners, to understand their concerns, and how best we can be playing a supportive role in the Georgian people’s aspirations.

We also recognize this as a moment for the challenge to democracy and freedom around the world — 16th year of a democratic recession, but it’s sharper because of the authoritarian repression driven from techniques we’ve seen coming out of Moscow and Beijing. But obviously, the impact here is in the wake of a war in Ukraine, and the occupied territories in Georgia. It’s a volatile moment for Georgia’s own future democracy, and we want to be here to support the Georgian people and their aspirations and Georgia’s journey to strengthening its democracy in this region.

As you know, just recently the European Union admitted that Georgia has its place in this alliance, but it gave specific tasks to the country before officially granting it a candidate status, while Moldova and Ukraine are a step ahead and they got candidacies. How’s this development and the failure of Georgia to secure the candidacy seen from the U.S. vantage point? And what does this mean for Georgia’s friends in Washington DC? 

First of all, this is quite significant. I’ve long been a supporter of Georgia’s aspirations to be part of the institutions of the transatlantic community because we’ve been inspired by and believe in and see the convictions of the Georgian people for where they see their future as part of a democratic West. It’s really quite impressive and stunning. On the one hand, I have long been wanting to see the European Union be more expansive and welcoming of the aspirations of the people of Europe’s east and so it’s a big deal. It’s significant what European leaders have just decided that there will be a European future for Ukraine, Moldova, and for Georgia. This is a significant positive development coming out of a horrific war in Ukraine that’s really galvanized Europeans, many of whom used to be quite skeptical of whether you could even imagine a country like Georgia being European. There is a good side of progress on this front, as we’ve seen that debate evolved in Europe.

On the other hand, for a long time, Georgia was seen as the frontrunner among these countries ahead of Moldova or Ukraine, with its own democratic reforms. It is really a sign that there’s more work to be done, there’s concern about that. And you mentioned the task that the EU assigned. I tend to think of it a little bit differently. What if Georgians committed to do themselves, together and how do they meet their own commitments.

At the end of the day, this whole process of deepening democratic reforms or joining the EU or moving towards NATO doesn’t really work if your concept is that what you do is for satisfying Brussels. That’s not really the concept.

What makes it so powerful — and I saw this when I served in the U.S. government and I watched the Baltic States and others — is when it really sinks in that people understand what we need to do it for ourselves to help our own people, be secure, to protect their individual liberties, to provide our country, its security, and understanding that what’s happening, whether on a reform agenda or these things, you are not doing that for Brussels, for Charles Michel or [French] President Macron. That’s not really politically sustainable, or it isn’t even the right way to think about democratic momentum.

It’s understanding what’s going to be the best pathway so that the Georgian people have their security, their ability to have their voice, and an understanding that these reforms need to come out of Georgians’ commitments to each other to deliver a better future for Georgians so that mothers and fathers can see a future for their children here, and they don’t have to think about their kids just going abroad whether it’s for jobs or for freedom, that right here in Georgia, this can become Europe. That transition is really important, so I worry right now. I welcome the fact the EU signaled that Georgia has a European future. I will tell you when I served in [U.S.] government, you couldn’t get some European politicians to even acknowledge that. This is a significant step forward.

And yet it’s also a clear sign that there’s a bit of concern and disappointment that the lack of progress and movement on the real underpinnings of what democracy means. And so Georgians shouldn’t think about what they need to do for Brussels but rather what Georgia needs to do for its citizens for its own aspirations. And that’s part of the difference of thinking about joining NATO or joining the EU. These are associations of choice.

Nobody is asking or requiring Georgia to do something. It really needs to be – does Georgia want a democratic future? If it does, if it wants to be part of these institutions, these expectations come with that.

But they have to be Georgian aspirations. And right now, I think there’s some question [here, although] there’s clarity that the Georgian people are strong in their conviction of where they see their future. It’s compelling: we see it in polling data, we hear from Georgians across the country, whether rural or urban. And yet, that continuity of commitment to what it takes to deliver the standards of reform is really important.

Coming back, that’s partly what the National Endowment for Democracy is here again, not as Americans showing up to say, “here’s what to do,” but how can we support Georgia’s journey? That’s why we make commitments to support independent media so that people have access to information, and can help manage an information environment rife with disinformation that’s dangerous and trying to manipulate the population. It’s why we stand by grassroots organizations, which really in our investment in civic engagement and participation, whether it’s youth participation, the inclusion of LGBT community, in political debate, this is part of the sense of an agency, how do people have a sense of agency in the democratic society? But it’s also why we make commitments to Georgians and staying connected to their own occupied territories and understanding that there has to be a future there, a pathway there and attractive Georgia is going to be compelling to Abkhaz wondering about their future as well.

And these are the types of commitments that we make that are not about the EU, but about Georgians, aspirations for its own people, its own democracy. But these investments I hope fuel the success of being able to accelerate Georgia’s agenda on the EU.

It’s clear Georgia has made some commitments, and I think you’ve heard European leaders say, can you meet these commitments you have made? If so, we want to respond to that, but it doesn’t just happen. It takes hard work and there’s a question right now: does Georgia have the political will and the political capability in this environment to deliver on its own commitments to deepen this process?

There are serious concerns about the potential for instability in Georgia. Some say the government instrumentalizes this to keep the opposition at bay. But others argue that the opposition is also prone to brinkmanship. How are recent developments in Georgia’s internal political scene seen in the U.S., especially as the civil society activists are playing a more active role in Georgian politics? 

Robust politics where parties and politicians have a full debate, it’s part of the fabric of democratic society. It’s a healthy part of it. But you can also see where that becomes unhealthy when the rules of democratic debate are really pressed, and this is where civil society and independent media is so vital, so critical, and so one of the things that I think has become a little bit disturbing is this sense of insecurity, as you said. We’re hearing from journalists about the concern about their own safety, and their security. We saw on July 5th last year journalist killed, protesters threatening the lives of those that turned out to stand by the rights of the LGBT community. It’s part of the reason why we’re here right now to underscore solidarity with the Georgian people. With Georgian journalists trying to do their job, the LGBT community, and others. It’s part of a sense that when you’re in government you have an added responsibility. It’s hard in a democracy to have an added responsibility to help create a conducive environment where there can be an even playing field. Many people are concerned about that, whether it’s the safety and security of those who want freedom of expression, coverage of media, to be able to operate freely or it’s the terms of political debate. Part of the challenge here is how within a democratic political framework can political actors work within these rules to shape Georgia’s future. That doesn’t just happen automatically and that’s why the role of civil society and media is an integral part of helping to be part of those checks and balances. It is a moment, there’s tension, you can feel that tension and you know it’s a bit concerning. But it’s oftentimes these pressures that help force and advance progress in society as well.

I hope that leaders here in Georgia, that activists here in Georgia see the bigger picture of how to actually strengthen the security that you mentioned, ultimately, Georgia’s security, its freedom, the sovereignty of a country that cannot take that for granted, its freedom as a nation, as a people, is really tied to the caliber, to the nature of its democracy.

And as Georgia’s democracy deepens, is more credible, it becomes a more resilient society, not dependent on one or two people or one or two forces. It becomes a factor where the Georgian people have the agency to help protect themselves. And that deepening of its democracy is what makes the American people, many Europeans say Georgia really is part of the West. It deserves to be part of these institutions. To have the perspective to understand that yes, these sometimes painful reforms, difficult political compromises, and things that curtail the power of the state sometimes are actually quite fundamental to ensuring the resiliency long term of the state.

Because the caliber of Georgia’s democracy is going to be directly related to the depth of American support, the American people’s enthusiasm for Georgia’s place in the transatlantic community.

I’m confident about that over the long term. I’m an optimist for Georgia because of the extraordinary creativity, ingenuity, and commitment that I see in the Georgian people. But I’m quite concerned about what happens in the short term, and that’s why we’re here to demonstrate our support for those aspirations for peaceful compromise for deepening over reform process, and for respecting the roles that political actors play, civil society has to play so the engagement is so crucial to getting this right, the constructive role of a church and being part of a force for peace and nonviolence in this society, these are things that are really important to support in a tense environment right now.

My final question: as we speak, the NATO summit is ongoing in Madrid. NATO has adapted its strategic doctrine and pledged to protect every inch of the allied territory. The rapid reaction forces are also set to grow on the eastern flank. What are the implications here for Georgia and the wider Black Sea region?

I am a long-time advocate supporter of Georgia’s aspirations to be part of the NATO alliance. I had the honor and privilege of serving in the U.S. government, particularly during the Bucharest Summit, where I was a strong advocate for beginning a very clear process for Georgia to become a member and ally. I thought Georgia’s progress merited that commitment. And I have seen with my own eyes, as I’ve supported our work in Afghanistan, as I served as a chief-of-staff at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and it was Georgian soldiers that provided force protection. I would see them every morning as I left the gates of the embassy. I’ve seen the contributions that Georgia has made to the security of NATO. I’m a believer that part of the challenge, and the new Russia that we face — Vladimir Putin’s Russia — is that having clarity is security. The Baltic States, Sweden, and Finland: by ensuring that there is no uncertainty, no gray zone, we will have peace. So how can this process be a peace process?

And it’s why ultimately Georgia finding its place within the NATO alliance is an important part of finding enduring peace here in this region so that there isn’t the temptation of uncertainty and understanding that the complications of 20% of this country being occupied.

It means that we need the ingenuity and creativity that we found in dealing with a divided Germany with others to understand. And that a democratic Georgia, the caliber of a democratic Georgia, could be part of an alliance of free nations without giving up its claims of sovereignty to its occupied territories but understanding the limitations of where Article 5 would apply.

What do we see coming out of Madrid? Georgia is not front and center, but it is true it is an American re-commitment to European security, and NATO commitment to the security of the Black Sea region, understanding how important this is, and a commitment that NATO enlargement continues as we see with Sweden and Finland in particular. This isn’t a huge step forward for Georgia itself, but if you think about the consequences of the overall opportunity, it’s creating an infrastructure which is if Georgia gets this right, if Georgia continues to bolster the caliber of its democracy, to continue to reform its armed forces, to continue to partner with democratic nations, there is a pathway for Georgia to be a close partner of the United States, and ultimately an ally within NATO.

It won’t happen tomorrow. It is tied to confidence and the durability of democratic institutions. This is why Sweden, and Finland decision was really easy in Madrid. Both the compatibility with the Alliance security forces, but as importantly, the stability of their democratic systems of rule of law.

And I hope that provides some inspiration and pathway for Georgian leaders and politicians to not only think about their security interest but to understand that democratic reforms bolster national security and that they’re intimately related.

And to get that right, it’s got to ultimately be, despite all differences to see different political parties, different factions of civil society that believe in where Georgia’s place is in the world. And despite political differences to be able to work together towards that goal, that’s pretty powerful.

Finland and Sweden are in today because we saw a political consensus form across parties, across civil society, that made it possible for their politics to deliver. I think it offers some insights for Georgia and its path forward.

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