By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 6, 2010; A06
TBILISI, GEORGIA -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton wrapped up a tour of former Soviet bloc countries Monday by assuring Georgia's pro-American leaders that they will not be abandoned as the Obama administration improves relations with Russia.
That "reset" of relations has unnerved this small country, especially as Russian troops have become entrenched in two breakaway regions where a brief war broke out in 2008.
During her six-hour stop in Georgia, Clinton defended the administration's policy, saying partnership with Russia is producing important results such as a nuclear arms-control accord. But she reiterated longtime U.S. support for Georgia.
"We continue to object to, and criticize, actions by Russia which we believe are wrong. At the top of the list is the invasion and occupation of Georgia," she said.
That comment drew a rebuke from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who cast Russia's action as a liberation, rather than an occupation, Russian news agencies reported.
This rugged mountain nation of 4.5 million was a favorite of President George W. Bush, who described it as a "beacon of democracy" for the popular uprising known as the Rose Revolution in 2003. Bush met with President Mikheil Saakashvili five times and shelved a civilian nuclear cooperation deal to protest the Russian military action in Georgia in 2008.
President Obama, by contrast, has not met with Saakashvili, and in May he moved to revive the Russian nuclear deal, telling Congress that Georgia "should no longer be considered an obstacle." That unleashed a wave of criticism that Obama was sacrificing Russia's neighbors.
Clinton responded to such charges Monday, saying the U.S. government continues to press Russia to honor its commitment in a 2008 cease-fire accord to withdraw its troops.
"I think the United States can walk and chew gum at the same time," she told an audience of female leaders.
Still, Clinton acknowledged the difficulties in solving the dispute in Georgia. She suggested that the best way this country could get back the two separatist regions -- South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- is by attracting them with an improved political and economic climate.
"That is the rebuke [to Russia] that no one can dispute," she said. She warned Georgia not to respond to any provocations with violence, and pledged that the United States will continue negotiations.
Saakashvili appeared satisfied. He noted that Obama had recently begun to describe Russia's military action as an "invasion," rather than a disproportionate use of force.
"Ultimately, if the reset leads to a more modernized, more open Russia, that's good for all of us," he said at a news conference.
Russia denies that its troops are occupying the two regions, saying they are now independent countries that have invited the Russian forces to stay. The governments of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are not recognized by most countries, reiterated that position in statements Monday protesting Clinton's description of them as "occupied" territory.
Clinton's four-day swing through Central Europe and the Caucasus was built around a high-level international conference on democracy in Poland on Saturday. But the trip was also aimed at shoring up relations with countries that have feared being marginalized under the Obama administration. The stops included Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Armenia.
"We've paid a tremendous amount of attention to the relationship with Russia. It's an important relationship," said David Kramer, who was assistant secretary of state for democracy under Bush. "But we've barely paid any attention at all to these other countries, and I think that's been a mistake."