US supports democratic forces in Georgia: Hillary

Georgia should concentrate on improving democracy, says Hillary Clinton.

Tbilisi: US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday pledged US support for this former Soviet state, which is recovering from an August 2008 Russian military invasion and seeking to consolidate its democracy.

Speaking to a couple of hundred women from rights groups, political movements and other organisations, Hillary said the US "will stand with you" in pursuit of a stronger Georgian democracy. She did not mention Russia or its invasion until it was raised by a member of her audience.

The invasion remains a point of contention between Washington and Moscow and complicates US relations with Georgia.

During a question-and-answer session, one woman asked if the Obama administration has a "real democracy agenda" for Georgia. She said her country suffers from a range of human rights abuses and she said these were largely ignored by the administration of president George W Bush.

"The United States always has a democracy agenda," Hillary responded. "Continuing to try to perfect democracy is one of the key challenges for any country — both its government and its citizens." She applauded recent progress in Georgia, but added that the administration "raises as a friend" its concerns about limits on freedom of expression.

"We take seriously threats to democracy, wherever they occur," Hillary said. "So we`re going to continue to support democracy here in Georgia."

Later Hillary was meeting with President Mikhail Saakashvili.

In her give-and-take with the advocacy groups, one woman asked about Russia`s continued occupation of parts of Georgia.

"The United States was appalled and totally rejected" the Russian invasion, she said. "I`m not going to stand here and tell you this is an easy problem, because it is not."

The key for Georgia going forward, she said, is to concentrate on improving its democracy and solving its internal problems and its economic prospects.

"That is the rebuke that no one can dispute," she said. Her unspoken point seemed to be that Georgia should resist any temptation to try to build up its military forces as a solution to the Russia problem.

Hillary advised that Georgia not take any actions that would offer Russia an excuse to perpetuate its occupation and its confrontational approach.

"I think it is a mistake to focus on the past," she said, alluding to the remaining anger over the August 2008 invasion.

The Obama administration is trying to strike a balance between pressing the Russians to withdraw their forces from the breakaway Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and convincing the Georgian government that building up its military is not the right solution.

At the centre of the Russia-Georgia tensions is an effort by Moscow to reassert its influence in the region, to preserve what President Dmitry Medvedev calls a Russian zone of "privileged interest”. The US rejects the notion of a Russian sphere of influence.

Georgia was the final stop on a Hillary tour that began on Thursday in Ukraine and also took her to Poland, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

In the Armenian capital of Yerevan earlier Monday, Hillary told human rights activists that Armenian government leaders told her they are open to liberalising a recently enacted law restricting radio and TV journalists.

Hillary said she was given the assurance in a meeting with President Serge Sarkisian.

At a reception for Armenian rights groups representatives at a Yerevan arts centre, Hillary said she wanted to encourage them to overcome the difficulties and frustrations of pushing their government to fully respect the right of free expression.

Earlier, Hillary paid her respects for the estimated 1.5 million Armenians who were killed during the final days of the Ottoman empire in what much of the world labels a genocide.

Bureau Report

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