CLINTON SPEAKS OF DEFENSE SUPPORT AND DEMOCRACY DURING GEORGIA VISIT
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared Washington’s decision to start accepting neutral travel documents and identification cards issued by the Georgian government for the residents of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia during her visit to Georgia on June 5-6. The decision prompted protests from the Kremlin, voiced in a statement by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs blaming Secretary of State for inducing “Tbilisi’s revanchist aspirations.”
Washington’s desire to reach out to residents of the conflict zones is one of the key areas of cooperation in the U.S.-Georgia strategic partnership. Others include bilateral defense cooperation between two countries and democratization, including the democratic transfer of power through the upcoming elections as a precondition both for Georgia’s institutional development and continued U.S. support.
These points were highlighted by Secretary Clinton during her visit to Georgia. She arrived in the Black Sea resort town Batumi as part of her tour in the South Caucasus countries to attend a U.S.-Georgia Strategic Partnership Commission session and met with government and opposition representatives.
In her opening remarks, Clinton reiterated the long-standing U.S. support for Georgia’s territorial integrity and the country’s aspiration for NATO membership; rejected the Russian occupation of Georgian territories and urged Russia to fulfill the 2008 cease-fire agreement envisaging the withdrawal of Russian forces to their pre-conflict positions.
Clinton stated that Georgia and the U.S. “already have strong bilateral defense cooperation” but that Washington intends to contribute further to the process of modernizing Georgia’s defense. She announced that the U.S. has contributed US$ 10 million since 2009 to the creation of a sustainable and self-sufficient Georgian coast guard. More specifically, the U.S. has funded the construction of a ship repair facility in the port town of Poti along with the installation of new communication equipment and a high-tech maritime information center and monitoring radars at all ports of entry.
Clinton officially presented the Coast Guard Department of Georgia with two multi-functional patrol boats (which were constructed in Georgia but equipped by American specialists) and specified three areas in which defense cooperation will be further enhanced. The U.S. will provide trainings to improve the skills of local staff in monitoring coasts and airspace; upgrade the capacity of the helicopter fleet to improve supply delivery across the country; and provide Georgian officers with modern training.
Clinton also emphasized the significance of Georgia’s upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections for Georgia in strengthening domestic and international confidence in the legitimacy of the country’s democratic institutions. “We urge Georgia’s leaders to ensure that it will be a competitive campaign and that the elections are free and fair,” she said. Whereas holding successful elections would be a crucial indicator of Georgia’s progress, Clinton termed additional measures needed to improve democratic performance, such as labor rights, judicial independence and media independence.
Responding to a question asked by a Georgian journalist at a joint conference with president Saakashvili about the possible negative effects of Russia’s planned military exercises in the North Caucasus on Georgia’s election conduct, Clinton clearly stated that “the most critical event is not another country’s military exercises, it is Georgia’s elections and that will speak louder than any military exercise could ever do about what Georgians stand for….”
One important massage from Clinton during her visit to Georgia was that Washington intends to deepen its engagement in the peaceful resolution of the conflicts over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. To this end, U.S. embassies and consulates throughout the world will accept status neutral travel documents for those residents who would like to use them for travel or study in the U.S.
Whereas the Georgian leadership hailed Clinton’s visit as “extremely successful and very important” for the U.S.-Georgia strategic partnership, the Russian Foreign Ministry assessed it as failure on Washington’s part “to learn lessons from the August 2008 events in the Caucasus.”
“High-ranking U.S. officials are again making loud statements about supporting Saakashvili, repeating verbatim false theses of his propaganda about a ‘Russian occupation of Georgia’,” said Russian Foreign Ministry statement.
Prior to Clinton’s visit to Georgia, the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, disclosed a covert proposal made by Moscow’s to Washington on exchanging “Iran for Georgia.” The dissemination of this sort of information underscores Washington’s strong position regarding the prospects of forceful shifts of government in Georgia. While this message certainly served as a warning to the Kremlin, Clinton’s statements correspondingly underlined U.S. expectations on the Georgian government.
Clinton declared “civic activism, open debate and a level playing field” as vital prerequisites for the parliamentary and presidential elections. This massage urges the Georgian government to ensure a free, fair and competitive election process. From a U.S. standpoint, Washington’s further support for Georgia’s defense capabilities, long-term security and prosperity depends on the quality of Georgian democracy. As Clinton put it, one can hardly imagine “a stronger message that could be sent to anyone, anywhere in the world than that.”