BATUMI, Georgia (Reuters) - The United States pledged on Tuesday to help train pro-Western Georgia’s military in coastal defense and underscored its rejection of Russia’s “occupation” of two separatist Georgian regions after a five-day war between Tbilisi and Moscow.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, visiting the Black Sea resort town of Batumi during a trip to the South Caucasus, urged Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to hold free and fair parliamentary elections as his term as president expires.
Clinton’s comments on military support will likely antagonize Russia, which sent troops into Georgia in 2008, routing the small South Caucasus country’s military before recognizing the two separatist regions as independent countries.
Clinton promised that Washington would provide training and support for Georgian forces to better monitor their coasts and skies and upgrade its transport helicopter fleet so it can more easily move supplies and people around the former Soviet state.
“With these efforts, Georgia will be a stronger international partner with an improved capacity for self-defense,” Clinton told reporters.
The efforts would involve training in the use of radar systems to monitor the country’s coasts.
Russia, which says Georgia started the war by sending forces into South Ossetia, has cast Saakashvili as dangerously bellicose and has warned the United States not to build up Georgia’s military. Saakashvili says he wants to coax Abkhazia an South Ossetia back into the fold through peaceful means.
The United States will refurbish Georgia’s existing helicopters but not sell it new ones, said a U.S. official on condition of anonymity. The official also said the training would help Georgia better use its existing radars, saying much of its infrastructure was destroyed in its 2008 war with Russia.
Clinton also urged Georgia to hold free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections, saying the United States expects it to have a peaceful democratic transition when Mikheil Saakashvili’s two terms as president end next year.
While praising Georgia’s economic and anti-corruption reforms, U.S. officials fear that Saakashvili’s political dominance has made it hard for other leaders to emerge ahead of October’s parliamentary vote and the 2013 presidential poll.
Russia’s recognition of the two as independent nations has clouded Saakashvili’s hopes of bringing Georgia into the NATO Western security alliance and the European Union, which may be loath to accept a member with territorial disputes with Moscow.
“We reject Russia’s occupation and militarization of Georgian territory and we call on Russia to fulfill its obligations under the 2008 ceasefire agreement,” Clinton said earlier, calling for Russia to withdraw its forces to pre-war positions and to allow in humanitarian aid.
Clinton spent much of her time stressing the importance of Georgia’s upcoming elections.
“We expect Georgia will hold free and fair elections this fall and then complete a democratic transfer of power in 2013,” Clinton told the news conference with Saakashvili at her side.
One possibility that worries officials in Washington is that Saakashvili, 44, might emulate Russian President Vladimir Putin by shifting to the prime minister’s post to retain power when his presidential term expires.
Asked if he could categorically rule out seeking the prime ministership, Saakashvili did not provide a definitive answer, saying that Georgia had developed democratic institutions and that the focus should be on these, not on personalities.
“Since day one I was in the office, I was offered this brilliant opportunity to turn myself into lame duck, especially considering what kind of reforms we have to achieve and complete by the end of my second term, I am certainly am not going to cede to this temptation to do it,” Saakashvili said.
He said Georgia will hold free and fair elections, adding that the “people’s choice is the most respected thing.”
A senior U.S. State Department official declined specific comment on Saakashvili’s plans but said the United States had repeatedly emphasized to Georgian politicians “that the next transition should be a genuine one”.
In the middle of a three-day trip to the South Caucasus, Clinton met five Georgian opposition members as a way of illustrating the U.S. desire to see competitive elections.
Opposition billionaire politician Bidzina Ivanishvili did not attend, though his Georgian Dream party was represented.
Reporting By Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Michael Roddy