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Georgia Rebuffs U.S. Ambassador Pick as Too Pro-Saakashvili

The move surprised U.S. officials, given Georgia’s staunchly pro-American stance.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, left, and then-Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili attend a welcoming ceremony at the airport in Tbilisi, Georgia, on July 31, 2017. (Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, left, and then-Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili attend a welcoming ceremony at the airport in Tbilisi, Georgia, on July 31, 2017. (Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty Images)

A career American diplomat slated to be named the new ambassador to Georgia has apparently been rebuffed by the small Caucasus nation because some in the Georgian government believe she is too favorable toward a pro-Western former president, according to several diplomatic sources.

Current and former officials in Washington told Foreign Policy that Georgia has indicated it will not sign a diplomatic agreement—known in diplomacy as an agrément—accepting the nomination of Bridget Brink, a career foreign service officer with extensive experience in Europe and two past tours in Georgia, because of her alleged predisposition toward former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Officials in both countries who spoke to FP contest the allegation that Brink supports Saakashvili. They characterized Brink as a professional who has never indicated a preference for Saakashvili or his party, the United National Movement. One official said Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell advocated hard for Brink’s nomination behind the scenes.

The State Department declined to comment, referring the matter to the White House, which has not yet formally announced an ambassador nomination to Georgia. A senior administration official said, “The Trump administration puts forward strong, qualified candidates for ambassadorial positions and is making every effort to fill these positions as quickly as possible, including in Georgia. We do not comment on the status of internal processes.”

A spokesperson for the government of Georgia declined to comment on the matter.

The resistance to Brink’s nomination appears to underscore how far the Georgian government has evolved since the tenure of Saakashvili, who was fervently pro-Western and opposed to Russian interference. Since 2012, the government has been dominated by the Georgian Dream party, which has continued Georgia’s Western trajectory while balancing improved ties with Moscow.

Multiple U.S. and Georgian sources suggested that the founder of Georgian Dream, former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili—the country’s richest person, who remains a significant political power broker—was behind the decision, although it was difficult to independently confirm the allegation. A billionaire who made much of his money in Moscow in the 1990s, Ivanishvili does not hold elected office in Georgia but is understood to play an outsized role in political decision-making.

Ivanishvili’s favored candidate, Salome Zurabishvili, won the presidency last month over Grigol Vashadze, who was considered a political disciple of Saakashvili. International monitors said government tampering skewed the vote.

“We presume that he [Ivanishvili] has direct influence on major decisions, but we don’t know what areas he’s involved in closely or which he delegates to others, we can only guess,” said Ghia Nodia, a professor of politics at Tbilisi’s Ilia State University.

A spokesperson for Ivanishvili could not be reached.

Since the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, some 20 percent of Georgian territory is under Moscow’s de facto control in contested breakaway regions not recognized as independent by most of the international community.

The legacy of Saakashvili remains a highly divisive issue in Georgian politics since he stepped down from the presidency in 2013. Saakashvili came to power following the bloodless Rose Revolution in 2003. The story of Georgia’s subsequent transformation captured the imagination of the international community as it went from the brink of failed statehood to a regional poster child for democracy.

Saakashvili’s pursuit of reform and modernization was at times so single-minded that his critics accused him of authoritarian tendencies. In June of this year he was sentenced in absentia to six years in prison for alleged abuse of power while in office. In a Facebook post, Saakashvili said that the process was politically motivated.

Nodia, the politics professor, said that the current government and Ivanishvili have previously alleged that U.S. officials working in the embassy in Tbilisi are predisposed to the former president and his party.

Giga Bokeria, a member of parliament for the largest opposition party, European Georgia, said it was concerning if this line of thought now extended to U.S. diplomats.

“To say that there is subversive activity against our state and to demonize the opposition as connected to this is a dangerous narrative,” he said. Bokeria’s party broke away from Saakashvili’s United National Movement in early 2017.

The U.S. ambassador post in Georgia has sat empty since the last diplomat to hold the job, Ian Kelly, retired at the end of March, which meant there was no senior diplomatic presence in the country during recent presidential elections. With Georgia’s fiercely pro-American posture, officials say, the U.S. ambassador there plays a more prominent role than a U.S. ambassador might in other countries.

Brink, a senior career diplomat with more than 20 years of experience in various roles, served as the deputy chief of mission—the second-highest-ranking diplomat—at the U.S. Embassy in Georgia from 2011 to 2014 and as a political officer in Georgia from 2005 to 2008. She also held the post of deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs beginning in 2015.

Georgia is one of dozens of countries that have gone without a U.S .ambassador for an extended period of time during Trump’s first two years in office.

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was criticized for leaving many top posts empty in Foggy Bottom and at embassies abroad. His successor, Mike Pompeo, has vowed to fill the posts as quickly as possible. Ambassador posts and senior State Department positions require presidential nomination and Senate confirmation.

Update, Dec. 10, 2018: This article was updated with comment from a senior administration official. 

Correction, Dec. 10, 2018: Bridget Brink previously served as the second-highest-ranking U.S. diplomat in Georgia. A previous version of this article misstated her role.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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