BATUMI, Georgia - The United States announced Tuesday new military assistance to Georgia, and expressed solidarity with the former Soviet republic's hopes of regaining the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the aid, already covered under a $16.6 million aid package, involves radar training for coastal and aerial defense, the upgrading of Georgia's helicopter fleet so it can better ferry troops and supplies, and officer training to improve its ability to defend itself and operate in NATO missions.
America's top diplomat also gathered with opposition figures and urged Georgia to strengthen its democracy and rule of law. But she didn't meet with the opposition's billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili, who told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that he wouldn't see Clinton alongside Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili's "agents."
Clinton praised Georgia for being the largest non-NATO contributor to the international mission in Afghanistan, and said modernizing Georgia's defenses was a "shared priority."
"With these efforts, Georgia will be a stronger international partner with an improved capacity for self-defense," she said at a news conference alongside Saakashvili.
But central to the day's agenda were South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The two territories declared independence after Russia routed Georgia in a five-day war in 2008, though few nations recognize them. Russian forces protect them.
"We reject Russia's occupation and militarization of Georgia's territory," Clinton said after meeting with top Georgian officials. Russian forces must withdraw to pre-conflict conditions, she added, and allow humanitarian monitors into the provinces.
President Barack Obama and Saakashvili outlined future military aid in January, when the Georgian leader visited Washington.
Clinton also announced an initiative involving identity cards for residents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, so they can travel to the United States easier. She inaugurated a Georgian coast guard vessel refurbished with U.S. financial assistance.
But one issue she didn't take on directly was Saakashvili's own future, even as she called Georgia's parliamentary elections this October and vote for a new president next year a "crucial indicator" of the nation's democratic progress.
"The single best thing Georgia can do to advance your security, your prosperity, your democracy, your international reputation is to hold free and fair relations that result in a fully democratic transition," she said.
Saakashvili will complete his second term in a year. But critics fear he'll then use constitutional reforms to pull strings from offstage, as Russian President Vladimir Putin did during his four-year term as prime minister.
Seeking to steer his country toward joining the European Union and NATO, the Columbia University-educated Saakashvili has been lauded for economic and anti-corruption advances, even as opponents accuse him of stifling media freedom and sidelining opposition. He denies any efforts to subvert Georgia's democratic advances.
"These elections will express the free will of the Georgian people," Saakashvili said. He said he would invite as many observers as possible, to make the votes "as transparent, as fair, as trustworthy as possible." But he refused to rule out a future role as prime minister.
Clinton met with leaders of several parties hoping for success in October's parliamentary elections. But Ivanishvili, a fierce critic of Saakashvili who made a fortune in banking and retail businesses in Russia, refused to join the panel, accusing two party leaders of being part of a pseudo-opposition while actually being allied with the Georgian leader.
"I didn't want to be there with Saakashvili's agents," Ivanishvili told the AP. He spoke some English, but relied primarily on an interpreter. He said he hoped to become prime minister this autumn, and that he'd aim to strengthen Georgia's partnership with Washington while also repairing relations with Moscow.
Saakashvili has accused his rival of being a Kremlin stooge.
But Ivanishvili said under him, his country would avoid "Saakashvili's mistakes" - referring to the 2008 war and continued frost in Georgian-Russian relations. He said Georgia can win back South Ossetia and Abkhazia's allegiance through economic progress and stability.