US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to reassure the Caucasus nation of Georgia over Washington’s commitment to strengthening ties during a visit to the region where Russia is asserting its influence.
The visit came a week after a Moscow-brokered peace deal ended fierce fighting between Tbilisi’s neighbours Azerbaijan and Armenia and sees 2,000 Russian peacekeepers stationed in their disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
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Russia’s growing influence in the Caucasus has worried Georgia, which in 2008 lost a brief war with Moscow over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
“We are committed to helping Georgia deepen its Euro-Atlantic ties and strengthen its democratic institutions,” Pompeo tweeted after landing in Tbilisi on Tuesday evening.
A senior Department of State official told journalists Wednesday that the United States “stands for their sovereignty, their independence, they’re not happy to have Russian troops present and occupying 20 percent of their country.”
After the 2008 war, Russia recognised both breakaway Georgian provinces and stationed military bases in the regions, derailing Tbilisi’s bid to join NATO, a long-time aspiration backed by the US but angrily opposed by Russia.
On the Georgian leg of his seven-nation tour of US allies, Pompeo held talks with President Salome Zurabishvili on Wednesday morning, and later with Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia and Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani.
Gakaharia said the visit “will serve strengthening the US-Georgia strategic partnership.”
“We will discuss with the Secretary of State the recent developments in the South Caucasus… that affect seriously our security,” he said in a statement, ahead of Pompeo’s visit.
The US embassy said in a statement Pompeo will also discuss with Georgian officials “the importance of free and fair elections.”
Georgia has been destabilised by anger over parliamentary elections which the ruling Georgian Dream party won narrowly on October 31, but the opposition denounced as rigged and demanded new elections.
Before departing for Israel on Wednesday afternoon, Pompeo is expected to meet with representatives of civil society and the influential head of Georgia’s Orthodox Church, Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II.