The Obama administration firmly supports Georgia, but President Mikhail Saakashvili must further encourage democracy, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said Wednesday.
Speaking at a banquet in the glass-domed dining room of Saakashvili's $40 million presidential offices, Biden pledged backing for the country one year after its armed forces were crushed in a war with Russia.
He said he wanted to send "an unequivocal, clear message to all who will listen and some who don't want to listen, that America stands with you and will continue to stand."
This was a reference to Russia, which claims a sphere of influence over Georgia and resents its efforts to integrate more closely with the West.
Biden, who flew to Georgia from Ukraine, is on a mission to reassure both former Soviet republics that the United States will not abandon them as President Barack Obama seeks to improve badly strained ties with Russia.
Conflict between Moscow and the West
Georgia's five-day war with Russia last August turned the small nation on the far frontier of Europe into the epicenter of the simmering conflict between Moscow and the West. Obama's attempt to rebuild relations with Russia has raised concerns among some East European nations that the U.S. might sacrifice their interests for the sake of better ties with Moscow.
Biden has been attempting to assuage those concerns on his four-day trip.
"As we reset the relationship with Russia, we reaffirm our commitment to an independent Ukraine, and we recognize no sphere of influence or no ability of any other nation to veto the choices an independent nation makes," Biden said in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, earlier Wednesday.
Biden received a hero's welcome in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, where flag-waving Georgians lined the streets as his motorcade passed by. They held signs saying "Don't Forget Us" and "No to occupation" — a reference to the Russian troops still stationed in two breakaway Georgian regions.
The motorcade also passed George W. Bush Street, marked by a large sign with the former U.S. president's picture. Due to Bush's steadfast support for Georgia, many here revered him even as he was widely disliked elsewhere abroad, and Bush drew huge crowds on a 2005 visit.
Biden, as the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also visited Georgia shortly after the war with Russia.
At Wednesday's banquet, Biden alluded to allegations that Saakashvili has imposed restrictions on the media and holds a monopoly on power, saying the U.S. encouraged the growth of civil societies that "hold all governments accountable, yours and mine accountable."
Addressing Saakashvili directly, he said in a joking manner: "You mentioned protesters. Welcome to democracy."
'No trade-off between democracy and security'
Saakashvili called Biden "Joe, my dear friend," and thanked him for his support and "all your belief in us and our cause."
But he rejected criticism that his rule has become increasingly authoritarian. "For us there is no trade-off between democracy and security," he said.
His government, shaken this spring by mass street protests demanding Saakashvili's resignation, appeared determined to head off any protests this week.
Ahead of Biden's arrival, police removed dozens of metal cages the opposition protesters had erected in front of parliament to block traffic along Tbilisi's central street and symbolize what they describe as a police state.
No arrests reported
No arrests were reported, and no resistance from opposition activists was visible along leafy Rustaveli Avenue, which remained closed to vehicles. About 3,000 opposition demonstrators protested peacefully a short distance away.
Biden is also meeting with leading opposition members who have taken part in the monthslong demonstrations. Political foes blame Saakashvili for the disastrous war with Russia and accuse him of riding roughshod over democratic rights.
Saakashvili says he was trying to defend Georgia from Russian aggression, and he announced political reforms Monday to address complaints that his administration was restricting rights.
After Georgia used military force to try to seize a breakaway region from Moscow-backed separatists in August, Russia sent tanks and warplanes deep into Georgian territory, crushing the country's army. The conflict inflamed Russia's ambition to reclaim its historic role as an assertive regional power with global ambitions.
Georgia is key to U.S., Europe interests
The Russia-Georgia war capped years of increasing tensions between the West and Georgia, a country key to U.S. and European efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, battle terrorism and secure Europe's energy supplies.
Shortly after the Georgian war, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declared that Moscow has a "zone of privileged interests" among former Soviet and Eastern European satellites. The U.S. and Europe have rejected sphere-of-influence geopolitics, which give great powers sway over their smaller neighbors.
The U.S. has pledged to support NATO membership for Georgia as well as Ukraine, but Germany and other European member states are skeptical.
Domestic support for NATO membership is significantly greater in Georgia than in Ukraine.
"(Russia) should not be allowed to kill these hopes," Georgian Defense Minister David Sikharulidze told The Associated Press on Wednesday.