US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday sought to reassure Georgia of Washington’s commitment to strengthening ties during a visit to the region where Russia is asserting its influence.
Pompeo’s meetings with leaders of Georgia came a week after Moscow brokered a peace deal between neighbours Azerbaijan and Armenia that sees 2,000 Russian peacekeepers stationed in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Anti-government demonstrators blocked the main street through the capital Tbilisi during the visit to voice anger over recent parliamentary elections the opposition said were rigged.
“We’ve been great friends almost 30 years on for your democracy,” Pompeo said during a meeting with Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia.
Pompeo vowed support for Georgia’s democratic development and said the United States recognised “the pain and difficulty connected to the occupation of your country,” referring to Russian troops stationed in two breakaway regions.
“Know that we want to do everything we can to support your democratic process… with free and fair elections,” he added.
Russia’s deployment of peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabkh last week unsettled Georgia, which in 2008 lost a brief war with Moscow over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Russia recognised the breakaway 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.
Pompeo made the visit to Georiga as part of a tour of seven US allies and he held talks with President Salome Zurabishvili and later with Gakharia and Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani.
“Our strategic partnership is based first of all on values – freedom, democracy, and of course shared geostrategic interests,” Gakharia said during his meeting with Pompeo.
– ‘Political turmoil’
The US embassy said ahead of Pompeo’s meetings that he would discuss “the importance of free and fair elections” with Georgian officials.
Georgia has recently been destabilised by anger over parliamentary elections which the ruling Georgian Dream party won narrowly on October 31, but which the opposition has denounced as rigged.
Opposition parties have staged mass protests demanding snap polls and refused to enter the new parliament, in a boycott that has undermined the ruling party’s legitimacy.
Opposition leaders said they hoped Pompeo would push the Georgian Dream-led government towards compromise, an expectation echoed by demonstrators in Tbilisi Wednesday.
Thousands of opposition protesters formed a human chain in the capital’s main thoroughfare, waving US and Georgian flags and holding placards that read “rigged elections” and “we need your voice.”
But a US diplomat told journalists “we’re not going to have the Secretary of State get pulled into domestic political disputes and turmoil.”
The diplomat added that the message the US wanted to deliver was: “use the institutions, don’t just boycott them and achieve your gains that way”.
Yet the way electoral violations were addressed by Georgia’s election commission “added to the sense of suspicion about to whether the results were credible or not,” the diplomat conceded.
A staunch US ally, Georgia is one of the most pluralistic countries to emerge from the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, although concerns have been growing that it is backsliding on democracy.
Critics accuse the ruling party’s billionaire leader Bidzina Ivanishvili — who is widely seen to be calling the shots in Georgia — of persecuting political opponents and creating a corrupt system where private interests permeate politics.
Before departing for Israel on Wednesday afternoon, Pompeo met with representatives of civil society and the influential head of Georgia’s Orthodox Church, Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II.