Even skilled diplomats sometimes stumble, especially when they think the microphones are off.
U.S. Ambassador Richard Norland in the former Soviet republic of Georgia found himself sputtering in outrage over comments he made earlier this month to students at Tbilisi State University in the capital of the Black Sea nation.
“This was a discussion with students. Actually it was off the record, and it was [a] secret recording,” he said in remarks posted on the U.S. Embassy website.
Mr. Norland suggested the quotes that appeared in the Georgian media were taken out of content, but the damage was done.
In his Nov. 15 address at the university, he complained about how the Georgian government treated residents of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have been restive since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
Georgia has clashed in those regions twice in the early 1990s and with Russia in 2008, when the Kremlin backed South Ossetian forces in a four-day war.
Mr. Norland recalled his earlier diplomatic service in the region in the 1990s and called on Georgia to apologize for mistreating Abkhazians and South Ossetians. He compared the treatment of the two ethnic minorities to earlier Russia abuses against Georgians, according to reports in the Georgian press.
Responding to a student’s question about his opinion of the cauldron of tension in the region, Mr. Norland said:
“If you ask me about my opinion, I can tell you that when I was in Georgia 20 years ago, I saw that Georgians were treating Abkhazians and Ossetians the same way as Russians were treating Georgians, and Georgia will have to apologize for mistakes of the past.”
His remarks sparked protests from opposition politicians, while the government tried to play down the ambassador’s gaffe.
“Georgians do not have to apologize to anyone,” said Paata Davitaia, leader of the European Democrats.
PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN | Demonstrators protesting U.S. drone strikes roughed up drivers Sunday as they sought to stop NATO supply trucks from passing through northwest Pakistan.
The rally came a day after a party led by politician and cricket star Imran Khan said it would prevent NATO supply trucks making their way to and from Afghanistan from traveling through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province until the U.S. stops drone strikes.
The U.S. leads the NATO coalition battling the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Some 100 protesters on the outskirts of Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, checked the documents of truck drivers headed toward Afghanistan as they passed through a toll booth.
They shouted at the drivers, and pulled one man, Gul Zaman, out of his truck when he told them that he was carrying commercial goods to Afghanistan, not NATO supplies. Video of the incident was shown by Pakistan’s GEO TV.
“Without waiting for me to take my documents out of the glove compartment, they dragged me out,” Mr. Zaman said. “We are also concerned about drone attacks, but they shouldn’t come down heavy on us like this.”
Police were present at the scene but did not intervene to stop the protesters.
Later, one of Mr. Khan’s allies, the right-wing Jamaate-Islami party, led thousands in a protest against drones and the NATO supply line in the southern port city of Karachi, where the shipments originate.
Mr. Khan, whose Tehreek-e-Insaf party controls the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government, has been a vocal critic of drone attacks. He and other officials say the strikes are a violation of the country’s sovereignty, although the federal government is known to have secretly supported some of the attacks.
Mr. Khan led thousands of supporters Saturday in a protest near Peshawar, where they blocked a road that led to one of two border crossings used by trucks carrying NATO supplies in and out of Afghanistan. The other crossing is in southwest Baluchistan province. The demonstration had more symbolic value than practical impact because there is normally very little NATO supply traffic on the weekend.
Federal Information Minister Pervez Rashid accused Mr. Khan on Sunday of trying to damage Pakistan’s relationship with NATO countries and Afghanistan.
“Anyone who wants to disturb our relations with neighbors is not serving the country,” Mr. Rashid said. “Because of Imran Khan, we could be isolated in the world.”
Mr. Rashid said Saturday that the government’s antidrone stance is clear and accused Mr. Khan of “playing politics.”
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also has been a vocal critic of drone strikes since he took office in June. He pushed President Obama to end the attacks during a visit to Washington in October, but the U.S. has shown no indication it will stop using a tool it views as vital for battling al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Mr. Khan has pushed the federal government to block NATO supplies across the country to force the U.S. to end drone strikes, but it has shown little interest in doing so. While Mr. Sharif has said he wants the attacks to end, he has made clear that he values a friendly relationship with the U.S.
It’s unclear if the government will take action to prevent Khan supporters from stopping NATO supply trucks.
‘Supporters of the Pakistani religious party Jammat-e-Islami rally against U.S. drone strikes in Pakistani areas, in Karachi on Sunday. Other demonstrators roughed up drivers as they sought to stop NATO supply trucks.