By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 5, 2008
TBILISI, Georgia, Sept. 4 -- Vice President Cheney, visiting here Thursday, pledged continued U.S. support for Georgia and said the Kremlin's military actions in the country last month had "cast grave doubt on Russia's intentions and on its reliability as an international partner."
"America will help Georgia rebuild and regain its position as one of the world's fastest-growing economies," he said, speaking after a meeting with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Cheney was the highest-ranking U.S. official to come here since war broke out last month and Russian troops entered the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, then moved on to occupy undisputed areas of Georgia.
Calling the invasion "an illegitimate, unilateral attempt to change your country's borders by force," Cheney promised that the United States would continue to back Georgia's bid for membership in the NATO alliance, an ambition that has angered Russia. "Georgia will be in our alliance," he said.
His words came a day after the United States pledged $1 billion to Georgia for reconstruction and humanitarian programs. The package mirrors the figure that Georgian authorities placed last week on damage suffered in the war, which began after Georgian forces attempted to retake South Ossetia.
"This kind of support means . . . there is hope that this country will be stable," said Alexander Rondeli, president of the Tbilisi-based Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies.
Georgia has in recent years been one of the region's fastest-growing economies, with a large portion of its gross domestic product coming from foreign investment. It is not yet clear how much outside investment will be lost because of the war, or how much industries such as tourism will be affected. "The danger is that investors will not come after this war," Rondeli said, adding that the aid package would "seriously push Georgia forward."
The United States has not indicated its plans for future aid to Georgia's military. In past years, the United States gave it a total of close to $250 million, only to see the force devastated last month by the Russians. Some people here now question whether the Georgian military was lulled by modern new equipment into believing that it was stronger than it was.
Georgia has not disclosed the extent of its military losses, but they are clearly significant, including severe damage to bases as well as destroyed equipment and ships.
Cheney's visit was part of a tour that included Azerbaijan and Ukraine, two other former Soviet republics that have forged close economic ties with the West and are nervous about Russia's intentions. Azerbaijan is the beginning point of a pipeline that transports Caspian Sea oil through Georgia to Turkey and the West, bypassing Russian territory. A second such pipeline is under discussion.
Standing beside Saakashvili at the presidential palace in Tbilisi, Cheney called the Georgian president "fearless" and "steadfast," and said international support for Georgia grew in part from its contribution of troops in Iraq. Until they were brought home during last month's war, Georgia had the third-highest number of soldiers in the U.S.-led coalition there.
Saakashvili appeared subdued compared with his mood during a visit last month by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, when he angrily tore into Russia for its invasion.
"We have weathered a terrible storm," he said in remarks preceding Cheney's. Citing the "great community of nations" that has supported Georgia in the past month, he said, "We feel that we are not alone."
Cheney's praise of Saakashvili seemed designed to counter Russian calls for his ouster, Rondeli said. "He stressed it. It was really very symbolic, and I think it was a response to Russian propaganda blaming Saakashvili for everything," Rondeli said.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has called Saakashvili a "political corpse."
Speaking in Moscow, Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the foreign affairs committee in the Kremlin-controlled lower house of Parliament, accused Cheney of trying to forge an "anti-Russian axis."
"It's Cheney who was behind all recent events on the former Soviet turf," Kosachyov said in televised remarks.
Russia has angered the West by maintaining control of what it calls a security zone in undisputed Georgian territory and by recognizing the separatist regions' claims of statehood. The only other country that has offered recognition is Nicaragua.
Cheney, who during his visit here also witnessed humanitarian aid being unloaded at an airfield, is among a stream of foreign leaders flowing through Georgia since the crisis began, including Rice, Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Cindy McCain, wife of Republican presidential nominee John McCain. Next week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana are planning visits.
Correspondent Philip P. Pan in Moscow contributed to this report.