TBILISI, Georgia – In a speech interrupted by several standing ovations, U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden told sombre Georgian officials on Thursday that Washington stands behind them a year after their army was routed in a war with neighbouring Russia.
The war last August came as Georgia sought to regain control of South Ossetia, one of two separatist regions backed by Moscow. Since then, Russia has recognized the two Georgian territories as independent nations and sent troops to defend them.
“I come here on behalf of the United States with a simple, straightforward message: We, the United States, stand by you on your journey to a secure, free and democratic, and once again united, Georgia,” Biden said.
Biden told the crowd in the ornate parliament chamber that Georgia should not use military force to retake its lost territories.
“It’s a sad certainty but it is true, there is no military option to reintegration, only a peaceful and prosperous Georgia,” he said. “(Show) those in Abkhazia and South Ossetia a Georgia where they can be free and their communities can flourish.”
He also called on the international community to reject the independence claims of the two regions and for the withdrawal of all Russian troops from them.
The war sunk U.S.-Russia relations to a post-Cold War low. Now as President Barack Obama’s administration seeks to rebuild those ties, political leaders in Georgia, Ukraine and other eastern European countries have looked on uneasily.
“I know that some are concerned,” Biden said. “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.”
Biden’s speech came toward the end of a two-day visit to this small country in the South Caucasus, a staunch U.S. ally since the 2003 Rose Revolution that brought President Mikhail Saakashvili to power.
During Biden’s visit, he and Saakashvili discussed economic aid and a proposal for $16 million next year for military training and reorganization, officials on both sides said.
Biden’s national security adviser Tony Blinken and a senior Georgian adviser denied a report Thursday that Saakashvili had asked Biden for anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons and U.S. participation in a European Union observer mission along its border with the disputed regions.
The senior U.S. official who told that to reporters later said he had spoken in error.
Saakashvili has previously expressed a strong interest in acquiring U.S. weapons as he seeks to rebuild his military, and Georgian officials in recent days have said they wanted the U.S. to join the observer mission.
But Blinken said the Georgians have not formally requested heavy weapons and that the E.U. has not invited U.S. participation. Blinken did not rule out the U.S. providing either after a formal request.
A spokesman for the Georgian Defence Ministry, David Nardaya, said the weapons Saakashvili wanted were defensive.
In Moscow, the government said it would not stand by while Georgia was resupplied with weapons.
“We will continue inhibiting rearmament of the Saakashvili regime and are taking concrete measures for this,” Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.
Earlier Thursday, Saakashvili said he and Biden had spoken informally at a dinner Wednesday night at the $40 million presidential compound.
Saakashvili said he remarked to Biden: “I told you there was no such thing as a free dinner in Georgia.”
The smiling Georgian leader, who referred to Biden as “Joe,” called the discussions “very productive.”
Biden seemed more reserved, calling Saakashvili “Mr. President.”
Over the past year, Georgia has received about $1 billion from Washington, most of it for reconstruction and humanitarian relief, and the country ranks as one of the world’s largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid.
Biden also spoke privately Thursday with major opposition leaders, including two of Saakashvili’s chief rivals: Irakli Alasania, Georgia’s former ambassador to the U.N., and Nino Burdzhanadze, former speaker of parliament.
While Biden repeatedly stressed the strength of U.S.-Georgia ties, he also called on Georgia to strengthen its commitment to democracy.
“Your Rose Revolution will only be complete when government is transparent, accountable and fully participatory, when issues are debated inside this chamber, not only out on the streets,” Biden told parliament.
Associated Press writer Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili contributed to this report.