A retired United States Army officer, a former commanding general of the United States Army Europe, MLieutenant General Ben Hodges commented on the changes to the law on electronic communications in an article published on Twitter and the American publication The Hill a few days ago.
Hodges discussed the developments surrounding the case of a telecommunications company, Caucasus Online, and criticized the Georgian government, the Communications Commission, and the Georgian parliament for damaging the investment climate in the country.
Ben Hodges spoke to InterpressNews exclusively about the topic in more detail this time.
– We know that there were problems between the GNCC and Caucasus Online, GNCC’s side of the story is that they were not informed about the transaction of the shares. Discussing new regulations in the communications sector of Georgia, some experts say that the new law was designed to work against this one company, Caucasus Online. Do you agree with that, and why?
-Just to be clear, telecommunications from the technical part about this, is not my expertise. But I was drawn to this case, to this issue because I am such a believer in the importance of private investment in Georgia, in the whole Black Sea region. Think of this as third leg of a stool necessary for security and stability, the other two legs are of course diplomacy and military force, but private investment is so important to help create strong resilient societies, to create job opportunities, to encourage young people to want to stay. And so, whenever I see a case where the Georgian Government takes steps that limit or restrict or discourage private investment, I get very concerned, and my suspicion based on evidence is that the Kremlin is usually involved directly or indirectly.
– Do you think there might be a Russian interest in this particular case, directly or with some kind of interference behind the curtain?
– Well, of course, I would never compare the Government of Georgia to the Government of Belarus, so I want to be clear about that. But when I see how the Government of Belarus is able to shut down communications much like the Kremlin is able to shut down communications or Chinese Government is able to shut down communications, I am concerned when the Parliament is able or decides to enact legislation that would restrict or shut down communication capabilities in or through Georgia. And of course, this particular project was important because it would help connect Europe to Central Asia, and eventually, all the way into India and Pakistan, and Georgia could become, I can imagine, telecommunications companies and other users like Amazon for example wanting to establish data centers in Georgia, rather than these connections going through Russia or through Iran. So, the restrictions on this of course, benefit the Kremlin. So, that’s why this is such a concern to me and frankly, a disappointment.
– NEQSOL bought shares of the Caucasus Online and that was a kind of a guarantee that Georgia would participate in the Regional Digital Hub Project. Then, we have a new law on telecommunications. Why exactly do you think those two facts are connected?
– Look, each Government has the responsibility and right to regulate things for the good of the population, you know, whether it’s for tax purposes, or to ensure cyber security compliance – that would be normal. But in my research I haven’t seen anything that indicated that these retroactive legislation was something that was done for those purposes. And so, I think that if you want Georgia to achieve its full potential as a liberal democracy, if you want young people to find jobs that cause them to want to remain Georgia and see Georgia grow, then the legislator, the Parliament needs to do things and make it attractive to businesses from all over Europe as well as the United States and elsewhere, to want to come there. And so that’s why this particular case is a bit of a disappointment to me because this is the kind of thing that discourages the private investment.
– Then why do you think Georgian Government doesn’t show its best interest to help implement this project?
Let me tell a short story, I had the privilege to meet the President of Georgia back in 2013, it was my first visit to Georgia. I asked the President at the time, I said: “How do you envision Georgia, what is Georgia’s place in the world?” And he said: “We are an Eastern European country, and we are the hub or the portal between Eurasia and Europe”. And that stuck in my mind, he said, “We are not a post-Soviet State, we are an Eastern European nation that is the portal between Eurasia and Europe”. So, this idea of Georgia being the hub for information, for logistics, really stuck with me. So, then a few years later, I heard about this project to build the Sea Port in Anaklia, a Deep Water Port, that would open up comers for larger ships, more containers coming from, say, China, through Eurasia across the Caspian, in through Georgia and then across the Black Sea, either to Romania, or to Odessa, or Turkey. Of course, this would make Georgia so important, European companies, the big logistic companies like DHL, for example, or Amazon would set up a hub there for trans-shipping. This would save shipping time, it would make the port of Constanta in Romania important, it would make the Danube River important, and all of these would bypass Russia. But of course, unfortunately, the Government or the Georgian Dream party in power has continued to through obstacles in the way of this Port Project. And even though the Ministry of the Economy has said it was a top priority, it’s obviously not. If it was a priority, it would be happening, but it’s not. And of course, the Kremlin is behind this, because the Kremlin doesn’t want to see Georgia become prosperous; the Kremlin doesn’t want European countries paying attention to the fact that Russia still occupies 20% of Georgia. So, that’s why this project of moving fiber optic cable through Georgia that bypasses Russia, is also not in the interest of the Kremlin.
– So, we can say that there are two main points of resemblance between those two projects: one, Government not trying to happy, and second, Russia being likely happy about it.
– That’s exactly right! The Kremlin has no interest in seeing the West paying close attention to Georgia’s security, if you have German and Dutch and French and Italian companies, as well as American companies and businesses investing in Georgia, then, of course, those countries will also be very interesting in the security and stability of Georgia, and they would notice that Russia still occupies 20% of Georgian, they will notice that Russia still occupies Crimea illegally, and that Russia is trying to chop off Ukraine, and that Russia is pushing its claims to underwater resources next to Romania. All of these things are kind of on a back page right now, but if you have Western companies investing there, that changes the dynamic, that’s the last thing the Kremlin wants, the West paying close attention to what Russia is doing there. That’s why this matters.
– Besides, there is a position that the law on telecommunications doesn’t go in accordance with the constitution. And the process, such as hearings at night, is seen as odd as well…
– This why having transparency in all Government activity is so important. You know, the United States – we are not perfect, but there is transparency, a very free media, and a balance of powers, checks and balances. They are intended to make sure that corruption and improper influences are not able to go against what the people really want. I think that the people of Georgia, especially young people, deserve to know that when the Parliament acts or when the Government acts, it’s done in full transparency and that makes it very difficult for the Kremlin, for other corrupt influences to cause things to happen that are not to the advantage of the people of Georgia. And look, it’s been just 12 years since Russia invaded Georgia. Over 12 years ago, the so-called Sarkozy Agreement was signed, and Russia was supposed to be gone. They are still there. Russia is about to stick its security forces into Belarus, Russia still occupies Crimea illegally, Russia is killing every week in Donbass, Years after so-called ceasefire, Russia is supporting Assad Regime in Syria which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and millions of refugees on the road into Turkey and into Europe, Russia has attempted to murder Mr. Navalny – people should have their eyes wide open. I don’t believe that the people of Georgia want to be seen as a partner or a collaborator with the Kremlin.
– Do you think that in Georgia, Russia might intensify even more using different techniques of hybrid warfare and other means, and result in a bigger threat?
– The Kremlin will never stop. Everybody needs to wake up and understand that the Kremlin will use everything it has, to achieve its strategic objectives, which include undermining liberal democracy, the last thing that the Kremlin wants is for the people, the citizens of Russia, to see that their neighbors in Georgia and Ukraine and Belarus are beginning to enjoy the benefits or could enjoy the benefits of liberal democracy of free enterprise, of young people being able to fulfill potential. So they are going to continuously do all that they can to undermine efforts in Georgia and Ukraine, and perhaps, I think we are about to see, in Belarus what happens. Because they see what happened in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, when people were set free, they were liberated. Not perfect, but still, when you have a liberal democracy, the quality of live goes up. They didn’t want to see that in Georgia, and so, they will continue to do things to undermine it. Which is why having a strong, resilient society in Georgia, where people trust their institutions of the judiciary, where elections are free and fair, where police activities are transparent and fair, and where media is allowed to investigate and cover everything that’s said and done and where financial transactions are transparent, that is what will give Georgia a strong, resilient society.
– Going back to the law on telecommunications, now, as we are talking, we know that the Parliament already enacted it…
– The Parliament, theoretically, should be responsive to the voters. So, if the voters realize what has been done, then they can pressure the Parliament and whatever the Parliament does can be undone, or perhaps, there is another legislative way to do it. For me, the biggest point is not the individual company, the biggest issue is why does it seem as if Georgia doesn’t really want or doesn’t encourage foreign private investment from the West. Why is that? It makes no sense. Only the Kremlin benefits when there is no private investment in Georgia. Georgia doesn’t benefit from it. The young people of Georgia are the ones that are missing out, when large Western businesses choose not to invest in Georgia.
I’d add that the people of Georgia deserve better than this. The courage that Georgians have shown, not just the military fighting in Afghanistan, but people in general, demanding transparent, responsive government – they deserve that and I hope that my country, the United States, I expect that we will continue to support Georgian people, the strategic location of Georgia, between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea is very important and I want to see Georgia become that hub that connects Eurasia to Europe, that I first heard about a several years ago.
– And maybe, a NATO future membership…
– Georgia should be a member of NATO already. Nothing left to prove in terms of meeting requirements. But you have the things like that, when private investment is discouraged that undermines the case and people like me and others want to see Georgia become a member of NATO, the lack and discouragement of private investment, I think, undermines that case a little bit.