Biden: U.S. backs Georgia, Russia must pull back
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, Reuters reported.
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.