9th District congressman Steve Cohen is just back from Georgia — no, not that Georgia, the one that used to belong to the former Soviet Union — and, as he waited in the Newark airport Tuesday, he could barely contain the elation he felt from having observed a political sea change in that land-bound Eurasian naton.
Cohen was in Georgia as a member of the Helsinki Commission and as an international monitor, appointed by House speaker John Boehner, charged with observing parliamentary elections Monday in the Republic of Georgia.
What Cohen got to see, as he told the Flyer, was a nation in the act of asserting its will for change. The election process seemed both “free and fair,” and the outcome was a defeat for the ruling party of incumbent Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who conceded the election to a coalition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. News reports have characterized the pending transition to be a victory for democracy, and Cohen concurs in that judgment.
The new leader is “a Bloomberg type,” Cohen said, referring to Michael Bloomberg, the wealthy entrepreneur who is now serving his third term as mayor of New York.
The congressman said that the media of Georgia, though not as open as in the United States, had begun to report accurately on the country’s internal conditions, and it was a recent series of articles about brutality and oppression in the natoin’s prisons that may have turned the tide against the incumbent. The attitude in Georgia was “festive,” Cohen said.
Georgis is catching up with the West in other ways, too, said Cohen, who toured the province of Gori and spent time in the capital city of Tbilisi, where he patronized an Elvis theme restaurant, a Beatles Café, and a giant-sized McDonald’s.
Upon his return stateside, Cohen’s staff issued the following news release:
MEMPHIS, TN — Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09), a member of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE — also known as the Helsinki Commission), recently served as an international monitor for the high-profile Parliamentary elections in the Republic of Georgia. Congressman Cohen was appointed to the Helsinki Commission by House Speaker John Boehner in early 2011.
“It was an honor to serve as a monitor for the Helsinki Commission,” said Congressman Cohen. “The Georgian government worked hard to hold free and transparent elections and this was its first litmus test for democracy. The Helsinki Commission and the world were watching this election closely because Georgia’s future and international reputation is at stake. These elections were an important test for Georgia’s democracy, especially considering how they will now undergo a peaceful passage of power. I have long been an advocate for protecting the right to vote in America and overseas and will continue to fight for the right to vote.”
Congressman Cohen continued: “The election I witnessed was free and fair, with checks and balances in place that assured that people were registered voters and only voted once. There were some activities leading up to election day, weighted by the government to their advantage, that made it more difficult for Georgia Dream Party leader Bidzina Ivanishvili to get his message out. Nevertheless, it appears the people’s will prevailed and, for the first time, a peaceful change in power via the election process has come about in a former Soviet satellite. I met Mr. Ivanishvili on Sunday morning and presented him with a U.S. House of Representatives coin as a token of goodwill. He accepted the coin with a broad and gracious smile. It was beautiful and inspirational to witness the ecstatic Georgian people participate in the Democratic process. Hundreds of thousands of citizens participated in a rally in Tbilisi after the election results were announced. The OSCE helped contribute to this birth, growth and fulfillment of democracy and I’m happy to say that Democracy is alive and well in Georgia.”
Congressman Cohen observed voting in rural and urban areas of Georgia on October 1 as part of the Organization for Security and Cooperation Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) election-observation mission as the former Soviet republic undergoes the most competitive election process since gaining independence. Congressman Cohen also was a member of the senior advisory committee of the OSCE PA as it worked with the OSCE Office of Democratic Initiatives and Human Rights to formulate the official OSCE assessment of the election process. Congressman David Dreier (R-CA) and Congresswoman Kay Granger (R-TX) also served as election monitors.
Earlier this month, Congressman Cohen participated in a Helsinki Commission hearing on “Georgia’s Parliamentary Election: How Free and Fair Has the Campaign Been, and How Should the U.S. Government Respond?” Georgia’s Parliamentary elections were held on Monday, October 1.
The Helsinki Commission, an independent U.S. Government agency, was created in 1976 to monitor and encourage compliance with the Helsinki Final Act and other OSCE commitments.
The Commission consists of nine members from the United States Senate, nine members from the U.S. House of Representatives, and one member each from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce. The positions of Chair and Co-Chair are shared by the House and Senate and rotate every two years, when a new Congress convenes. A professional staff assists the Commissioners in their work.
The Commission contributes to the formulation of U.S. policy on the OSCE and takes part in its execution, including through Member and staff participation on U.S. Delegations to OSCE meetings and in certain OSCE bodies. Members of the Commission have regular contact with parliamentarians, government officials, NGOs, and private individuals from other OSCE participating States.
The Commission convenes public hearings and briefings with expert witnesses on OSCE-related issues; issues public reports concerning implementation of OSCE commitments in participating States; and organizes official delegations to participating States and OSCE meetings to address and assess democratic, economic, security and human rights developments firsthand.