Hillary Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state, reiterated Washington’s “steadfast” support to Georgia, spoke out against “the continued occupation” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Russia, called on Tbilisi not to be “provoked” by Russia and not to be focused on the past.
Clinton paid a six-hour visit to Georgia on July 5, which was her final stop on her tour of Eastern European countries, which also included Ukraine, Poland, Azerbaijan and Armenia.
During her stay in Tbilisi the U.S. Secretary of State held a town hall meeting with women leaders, met with President Saakashvili and some opposition leaders and took a walk in the old part of Tbilisi together with the Georgian leader.
Town Hall Meeting
The town hall meeting in the National Library involved over hundred of women, including from advocacy and media groups, opposition parties, lawmakers and some senior government officials, as well as the Georgian First Lady, Sandra Roelofs.
“I believe that the potential of this country to serve as a beacon and model for democracy and progress is extraordinary,” Clinton said in her opening remarks at the meeting.
During question-and-answer session the Secretary of State was asked by Tina Khidasheli of the opposition Republican Party whether the Obama administration had “real a democracy agenda” for Georgia. “The real one and not the one we have seen during the Bush times – that was ‘well, we know what Saakashvili does, but he’s our guy’… is that any real weapon the U.S. has to influence the democratic changes?” Khidasheli asked and added that she was concerned about, what she called, increasing skepticism towards the West among Georgians.
“The United States always has a democratic agenda,” Clinton responded.
“Our view is that Georgia has made extraordinary progress and has demonstrated resilience in the face of very difficult circumstances. But of course, we raise issues - whether it’s criminal code, independent judiciary or free media; we raise these issues as a friend, as a supporter, as a believer in the significance of Georgian democracy.”
“We gonna continue to support democracy in Georgia,” Clinton added.
She said that when people starting saying that they become skeptical of the west, the alternative was to “work to overcome that skepticism, work to fix the problem.”
Later during the same meeting she again addressed the same issue and said: “It is beyond my imagination that a country that has fought so hard to be independent, despite the difficulties would be seeking another potential route.”
Another government critic, Eka Beselia, a former member of ex-defense minister Irakli Okruashvili’s party, who now leads an advocacy group, told the Secretary of State that there were more than 60 “political prisoners” in Georgia. “And I want to request you to ask President Saakashvili why he holds political prisoners and why the judiciary is not independent,” Beselia told Clinton and added that she herself became a victim, because her family members faced criminal persecution “just because I was in the opposition.”
“We raise all of these concerns with our meetings with the officials; I will raise this and other concerns when I meet with the President… I want to be clear that the United State supports the Georgian people and the Georgian democracy,” Clinton responded.
When a lawmaker from the ruling party, Chiora Taktakishivli, asked the Secretary of State what was the U.S. agenda to facilitate return of displaced persons back to their homes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Clinton responded that the U.S. was “appalled and totally rejected the invasion and occupation of the Georgian territory.”
“We continue to speak out against the continued occupation and we support the use of the Geneva mechanism but it needs to be revived and it needs to be intensified. And we intend to try to do that. I am not going to stand here and tell you that this is an easy problem because this is not,” Clinton said.
During the same meeting Clinton stressed that the best way for Georgia was to move forward with its reforms and economic development and not to focus on the past.
“It is a mistake to focus on the past. Too many countries in this part of Europe are looking backwards instead of forwards,” she said. “It does not mean you forget the past; it does not mean you don’t take prudent measures to protect yourself, but staying focused on what you can do today and tomorrow to improve your lives and lives of your fellow citizens and building your democracy and opening your economy and providing for justice and social inclusion – that is for me a great mission of Georgia.”
She again reiterated that while trying to reset relations with Russia, the United States continued “to object and criticize actions by Russia which we believe are wrong and on the top of the list is the invasion and occupation of Georgia.” “We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” she added.
She also “strongly urge” Georgia “not be baited or provoked into any action that would give any excuse to the Russians to take any further aggressive movements.”
‘Steadfast Commitment to Georgia's Sovereignty’
After the town hall meeting, the Secretary of State headed to the presidential palace, where she met with President Saakashvili.
Clinton said in her opening remarks at the joint news conference after the meeting that she arrived in Georgia to deliver “a clear message” from President Obama, that the United States “is steadfast in its commitment to Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
“The United States does not recognize spheres of influence,” she said and added that President Obama and she had communicated this message also with the Russian counterparts.
She said that the U.S. was calling on Russia to abide with its commitments undertaken under the August 12 six-point ceasefire agreement and to pull back its troops to pre-August war line.
She also reiterated the U.S. position that there was no need for any additional agreement, as insisted by Russia – a reference to Moscow’s calls on Tbilisi to sign a non-use of force treaty or a declaration. Moscow, however, itself refuses to sign such document citing that it is not party into the conflict.
Echoing Tbilisi’s position on the matter, Clinton said that if such agreement was anyway prepared, it would only be acceptable if Russia also was the part of it.
She said that Geneva talks were an important forum to help increase transparency in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and to help reduce tensions.
She said that the U.S. “strongly urges” South Ossetians “to immediately” resume participation in the Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM). She also said that the U.S. was calling on Russia to encourage South Ossetians to return to that mechanism, which was established in frames of Geneva discussions and involves regular meetings between the sides to address security concerns on the ground.
She also called on the Abkhaz side “to constructively participate” in the Geneva talks. Sokhumi said last month that it was "temporarily withdrawing" from Geneva talks – the move which Tbilisi said was in fact Russia’s attempt to undermine Geneva talks with the hands of its “puppet regime” in Sokhumi.
Clinton said the U.S. was concerned about construction of Russia’s “permanent military base” in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and added that Washington “made it clear” to the Russian authorities that such move was not in line with their commitments under the ceasefire agreement.
Clinton thanked Georgia for its significant contribution to the NATO forces in Afghanistan and added that this contribution showed evidence of Georgia’s “diligent movement towards meeting the requirements” for NATO membership.
At the joint news conference with President Saakashvili, Clinton said that despite “difficult circumstances” Georgia made “a real progress” in past few years.
“But, as you know better than I, there are still shortcomings. We want to urge Georgia to continue work of the Rose Revolution,” Clinton said.
U.S. ‘Decisive’ Assistance
Saakashvili said that the U.S. assistance was “decisive” for Georgia since its independence.
He said that “repeated statements” defending Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity made by the Obama administration, as well as the U.S. support to Georgia’s democracy were of vital importance for Tbilisi.
He also said that Georgia remained committed to reforms and modernization and although much remained to be done, Georgia was “a model of political and economic reforms” and “a shining example at least for this region.” He also added that despite occupation and challenges, Georgia would never turn away from this path of “reforms and modernization.”
‘Step-By-Step’ Security Cooperation
During the press conference, Saakashvili was asked about “de facto restrictions” on sale of U.S. arms to Georgia on which he responded by saying that Georgia had “very good security cooperation” with the United States and brought an example of Georgia’s contribution to the Afghan operation.
He said that this security cooperation “is a process, a step-by-step approach.” He said that “there is nothing to complain about” the U.S. policy on this issue.
On the U.S. reset policy with Russia, Saakashvili said that although initially some questions were raised about the issue, it was now clear that the reset did not come at the expense of principles.
“It is a value-based policy… That’s why we all love America,” he said.