Clinton backs Georgia on Russia 'occupation'

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The Independent Online

On the last leg of her eastern Europe tour, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a firm message of support to Georgia yesterday, seeking to ease the former Soviet country's fears that its interests were being sacrificed in the name of America "resetting" relations with Russia.

Repeatedly using the term "occupation" to describe the presence of Russian troops in Georgia's breakaway regions, Mrs Clinton said the Obama administration "flatly rejects" Russian claims to have a privileged sphere of influence in countries on its borders. "I came to Georgia with a clear message from President Obama and myself: the United States is steadfast in its commitment to Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity," she said in a joint press conference with president Mikheil Saakashvili.

Thousands of Russian troops have been stationed in Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia since the 2008 Russian-Georgian war. Mrs Clinton said this was in contravention of the ceasefire that ended the five-day war, and called on Russia to abide by its commitments, "including ending the occupation and withdrawing Russian troops from South Ossetia and Abkhazia to their pre-conflict positions". The Georgian authorities consistently use the word "occupation" to describe Russia's presence in the region, and Clinton's use of the same term is being seen as a significant victory in Tbilisi.

Russia's prime minister Vladimir Putin responded: "Some believe that it has been occupied, but others think that it has been liberated."

Mrs Clinton's visit is intended to reassure the pro-Western leadership that it is not being abandoned. However, the Georgian-US relationship is not as warm as it was under the Bush administration, when the country was hailed as a "beacon of liberty". Asked about Georgia's reported difficulties in purchasing American armaments, Mr Saakashvili merely said there were no problems "in terms of policy". However, he praised the US policy of resetting relations with Russia. "We support the policy, it's already producing results," he said. "We see it's done exactly the right way, it's a value-based policy and that's why we all love America."

Georgian political analysts suggest that the policy may be paying dividends in terms of national security. "Russia is less isolated, more engaged and more peaceful because of the reset policy," Professor Alexander Rondeli, the president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International studies, told The Independent.

The Obama administration is keen to avoid any conflagration of the kind in August 2008, when US-Russia tensions were at their worst since the Cold War. Both sides have tried to play down last week's revelations about an alleged Russian spy ring operating in the US.