Two Senate Foreign Relations Committee members traveled to Tbilisi to witness the elections that pushed Mikheil Saakashvili's party from power Monday, and they praised both sides for their actions during and after the vote.
Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and James Risch (R-ID) spent several days in Georgia as official elections observers with the U.S. Embassy. They spoke with members of the Atlantic Council on a conference call from Ankara, Turkey Tuesday. Both senators said the elections that will sweep into power the Georgian Dream movement, led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, were free and fair and that the United States would work constructively with the new Georgian government going forward.
"We watched an historic transition in Georgia. We were very pleased to see that the elections yesterday were overwhelmingly peaceful, with few incidents, and the will of the people of Georgia was expressed," Shaheen said.
The two senators visited several polling stations and spoke with election workers, observers, and voters. They said the elections show the maturity of the Georgian democracy and that Georgia should serve as a model for other countries in the region, especially former Soviet bloc states.
Saakashvili and Ivanishvili both gave remarks following the vote that helped keep the situation calm, Shaheen said, and she urged the new government to continue the old government's efforts to build up Georgian institutions and civil society.
Risch praised the outgoing government for setting up voting rules and procedures that allowed for an orderly process and a free and fair result.
"It was done very orderly; we watched it," he said. "Although we got a handful of complaints... at the end of the day, we knew that however this came out, it was going to be a fair election and the will of the people would be on the table and for everyone to see. They can be proud of the way the elections were conducted."
Shaheen and Risch met with both Ivanishvil and Saakashvili Tuesday, the morning after the vote. Risch said Ivanishvili said nothing but positive things about the U.S.-Georgia relationship. "We were very comfortable as far as our relationship in the future," Risch said.
In a statement issued after the conference call, Shaheen and Risch commented on the violence and allegations of fraud that preceeded the elections and called for a follow-up investigation.
"As U.S. elected officials, we can appreciate that the hard work of democracy is not always pretty. The campaign and the lead-up to Election Day in Georgia were tough, polarizing and messy, and the significant allegations of campaign violations on both sides will need to be addressed in the immediate aftermath of this campaign," they said.
Saakashvili conceded defeat in the parliamentary elections with a statement Tuesday. He will remain as president until elections next year and pledged to help the Georgian Dream party as his own United National Movement party moves into the opposition role.
"After summarizing the preliminary results of parliamentary elections, it is obvious that the coalition Georgian Dream has gained an advantage in these elections," Saakashvili said. "It means that the parliamentary majority should form a new government and I, as the president, will contribute -- in frames of the constitution -- to the process of launching Parliament's work so that it is able to elect its chairman and also to form a new government."
In an interview last month with The Cable, Ivanishvili pledged to continue close cooperation with the West, including the contribution of Georgian troops to the mission in Afghanistan.
"That such a large military and political coalition as NATO is partnering with us and takes us as a young partner -- this is an honor and we need to do everything we can to retain this and take part in our maximizing and supporting this," he said.
Ivanishvili said that Georgia should aspire to be a regional player and still hopes to join NATO after his party comes to power.
"Security-wise, something better than NATO has not been invented... Every human being strives to a better future, and this is the better future for Georgia, and this is our strategy," he said.
He also pledged to improve Georgia's relations with Russia.
"No matter what kind of ruler it will be, better than Putin or worse than Putin, every politician's duty is to normalize relations with their biggest neighbors," Ivanishvili said.
UPDATE: White House Press Secretary Jay Carney issued a statement on the election this afternoon:
The United States congratulates the people of Georgia for the successful completion of yesterday's parliamentary elections, and the achievement of another milestone in Georgia's democratic development. Georgian citizens have set a regional and global example by conducting a competitive campaign, freely exercising their democratic rights, and affirming their commitment to undertake a peaceful transfer of power. Local and international election monitors, including OSCE/ODIHR, contributed to ensuring a transparent electoral process. While the final tabulation and appeals are still ongoing, these elections mark a significant step in the consolidation of Georgian democracy.
Much work remains in the coming days and months. President Mikheil Saakashvili, Bidzina Ivanishvili and the leadership of the Georgian Dream coalition, and Georgia's new parliament will need to work together in a spirit of national unity to ensure continued progress on the advancement of democracy and economic development to the benefit of the Georgian people and the entire region.
The United States stands with all Georgians in welcoming these historic elections. President Obama and his Administration look forward to furthering our close cooperation and strong bilateral partnership with Georgia.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.