TBILISI (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Joe Biden pledged Washington’s strong support for Georgia a year after its war with Russia, urging Moscow to abide by a ceasefire and pull back its troops from two rebel regions.
But in a shift from the uncritical support offered to Tbilisi by former president George W. Bush, Biden balanced his remarks with criticism of Georgia’s record on democracy and media freedom under pro-U.S. President Mikheil Saakashvili.
“We the United States stand by you on your journey to a secure, free, democratic and once again united Georgia,” Biden said in an emotional speech to the Georgian parliament.
As tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi rise ahead of the anniversary of the war, Biden recalled hearing artillery bombardments as he sat on a rooftop with Saakashvili last year.
“I know there is some concern, and I understand it, that our efforts to reset relations with Russia will come at the expense of Georgia. Let me be clear: they have not, they will not and they cannot,” he said.
Biden called on the world not to follow Russia in recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, but told Georgian lawmakers that there was “no military option” for winning the two regions back.
Washington is sensitive to criticism that the Bush administration overlooked Saakashvili’s failings on democracy and may have allowed Tbilisi draw the wrong conclusions about possible U.S. backing before it launched the August 2008 assault on South Ossetia that triggered Russia’s invasion.
“Your Rose Revolution will only be complete when government is transparent, accountable and fully participatory,” Biden said, referring to the uprising which brought Saakashvili to power and opposition fears its democratic ideals have been lost.
He told Georgian lawmakers, who sat in silence during this portion of his speech, that they should address the balance of power between the parliament and the executive branch, level the electoral playing field and ensure free media and courts.
There was no immediate official reaction to Biden’s remarks from Russia. A Kremlin source told Reuters that Moscow officials saw “nothing new” in the speech.
In comments timed to coincide with Biden’s visit, Russian deputy foreign minister Grigory Karasin attacked what he termed “revanchist tendencies” in Georgia, vowed to stop Tbilisi from rearming and threatened nations who helped it with weapons.
Biden was given a raucous reception by flag-waving Georgians on arrival on Wednesday and ended his visit with a televised question-and-answer session with Georgian children who had fled their homes in the fighting, handing out frisbees and sweets.
With U.S. President Barack Obama trying to improve relations with Russia after they hit a post-Cold War low under Bush, Biden’s speech was carefully calibrated.
He called on Russia to honor its commitments in last year’s ceasefire agreement “including the withdrawal of all forces to their pre-conflict positions and ultimately out of your territorial area.”
Russia crushed a Georgian assault on South Ossetia last August after months of tension between Moscow and Tbilisi over the pro-Russian rebel territories, which threw off Georgian rule in the 1990s and have run their own affairs since.
Georgia is now pushing for U.S. help to defend itself against any threat from Russian troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, at their nearest just 50 km (30 miles) from Tbilisi.
“We are a country under attack, under partial occupation,” Saakashvili said before talks with Biden earlier in the day.
Russia accused Georgia of rearming and vowed to stop it.
Karasin accused unnamed states of hiding military cooperation with Georgia “under the guise of humanitarian aid” -- an apparent reference to the United States, which has been sending Tbilisi humanitarian supplies. A U.S. State Department spokesman declined to comment on Karasin’s remarks.
Analysts say it is unclear how far Obama is prepared to go in supporting Georgia without undermining cooperation with Moscow on a host of issues from arms control to Afghanistan.
Biden told the Georgian parliament the United States still backed Georgian aspirations to join NATO, something Russia fiercely opposes, and noted that Georgia was one of the largest per capita recipients of U.S. aid in the world.
But diplomats say Georgia’s NATO accession bid, along with that of Ukraine, has in fact been shelved.
Abkhazia said Biden was backing the wrong country. “The continued U.S. support for Georgia is disheartening because it will only result in military escalation and pointless discussions about a ‘territorial integrity’ that no longer exists,” Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh said in a statement.
Additional reporting by Niko Mchedlishvili in Tbilisi, Arshad Mohammed in Phuket, Oleg Shchedrov and Amie Ferris-Rotman in Moscow; writing by Matt Robinson and Michael Stott; editing by Andrew Roche
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