U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney Thursday reaffirmed America's commitment to Georgia's bid for NATO membership as he landed in Tbilisi for a brief visit to extend U.S. support to the Caucasus nation following its recent conflict with Russia.
U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney (L) shakes hands with Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili in Tbilisi Sept. 4, 2008. [Xinhua/Reuters Photo]
"America is fully committed to Georgia's membership action plan for NATO and to its eventual membership in the alliance," Cheney said after meeting with Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili. "Georgia will be in our alliance," he said.
Cheney is the highest-ranking official to visit Tbilisi since its conflict with Russia began in early August, when Tbilisi sent in troops to reclaim South Ossetia, a breakaway region of Georgia, and Russia quickly mounted a counter-offensive to drive out the Georgian troops.
Cheney slammed Russia's military action as an "illegitimate" attempt to change Georgia's borders "by force," saying they "have cast grave doubt on Russia's intentions and on its reliability as an international partner."
But Moscow has argued its military operations were intended to protect civilians and enforce peace in the region. The fighting ended with a ceasefire agreement brokered by France.
Cheney's trip came on the heels of a White House announcement of a 1-billion-U.S.-dollar aid package to Tbilisi to "meet Georgia's humanitarian needs and to support its economic recovery."
The assistance "will help the people of Georgia recover from the assault on their country, and continue to build a prosperous and competitive economy," U.S. President George W. Bush said in a statement Wednesday.
More than half of the funds will be made available in the near term, Bush said.
Prior to the new aid package, the United States has provided nearly 30 million dollars in aid to Georgia since the conflict erupted, including 1,200 tons of food and other relief supplies, according to the White House.
After meeting Cheney, Saakashvili thanked the U.S. for its assistance to Georgia and said his country wants a dialogue with "all nations in the neighborhood and worldwide."
Cheney stayed in Georgia for about four hours and headed on to Ukraine on his four-nation tour that will also take him to Italy.
On Wednesday, he visited neighboring Azerbaijan, a resources-rich Caspian Sea nation that straddles major pipelines taking oil and gas to the West.
At a meeting Wednesday with Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev, Cheney said that the United States has "deep and abiding interests" in the security of the region.
"We must work with Azerbaijan and other countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia on additional routes for energy exports that ensure the free flow of resources," he said. "Energy security is essential to us all, and the matter is becoming increasingly urgent."