, TBILISI, Jul 23 – Vice President Joe Biden travelled to Georgia on Wednesday to reaffirm strong ties with the former Soviet republic where US and Russian interests have collided in recent years.
In an ironic start to his visit, Biden’s motorcade travelled along George W. Bush avenue, the main thoroughfare linking Tbilisi’s airport with the city center, re-named several years ago in honor of the former US president.
However throngs of US flag-waving supporters stood alongside the road on parts of Biden’s route to the capital, some of them holding placards reading: "Yes You Can!" — a reference to US President Barack Obama’s campaign slogan.
"The reason why President Obama asked me to go to Georgia was to send a clear and simple message that America’s stand with Georgia will continue," Biden said in a toast at a dinner hosted by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili upon his arrival.
"We were first and foremost inspired by your quest for independence. What you did (in the popular revolution in 2003) extended well beyond the borders of Georgia," Biden added.
Saakashvili, whose drive to end Russian sway and ally his strategically-located country with the United States was strongly backed by Bush, in turn thanked Washington for its support and pledged that Georgia "will never ever surrender" to Russia.
The clash of US and Russian interests in Georgia was highlighted a year ago when Russia and Georgia fought a brief war that resulted in a humiliating defeat for Saakashvili.
"You told me (after the August war) that ‘I will never abandon you, I will always be there for your country’. You always were there," Saakashvili recalled, adding assurances that he sought to build a functioning democracy and initiated new reforms to boost it.
"While we are at gunpoint, we believe that democracy is now needed more than ever. For us there is no tradeoff between democracy and security, and our security can only be addressed by investing in our democracy," the Georgian leader said.
However, Georgia required its friends’ help along this "long and difficult road", Saakashvili added.
Biden’s trip to Tbilisi comes after his boss and Bush’s successor, President Barack Obama, travelled to Moscow two weeks ago and heralded plans to "reset" US relations with Russia.
Biden was expected however to reassure Georgia that this US policy pursuit would not come at the expense of support for Georgia, a message he also delivered to Ukraine which he visited ahead of his trip to Georgia.
In Kiev earlier, Biden told Ukraine that its economic future depended in large measure on freeing itself from dependence on Russian energy and pledged US help in finding solutions.
"Your economic freedom depends more on your energy freedom than on any other factor," Biden said in a speech in the Ukrainian capital.
He described Ukraine as "one of the most free and democratic countries" in eastern Europe but underlined the direct link between its management of energy and its room to manoeuvre on broader issues of state policy.
Ukraine still relies almost exclusively on Russia for natural gas supplies crucial to its own industry and is also the primary transit country for Russian gas shipments to European nations further downstream.
That reality, a result of a unified energy infrastructure built when Ukraine and Russia were part of one country, the Soviet Union, has been at the root of energy crises in recent years which have had broad international implications.
Biden’s mission to Ukraine and Georgia, coming on the tails of Obama’s trip to Moscow, was characterised as a "balancing trip" to reassure those countries that US efforts to "reset" ties with Russia will not occur at their expense.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal published on Monday, the Georgian leader, Saakashvili, admitted that his country’s drive to join NATO was "almost dead".
He said that if the Kremlin succeeded in its efforts to "kill" Georgia’s NATO membership bid — many analysts say it already has — this would prove that Russia "fought for the right reasons" last summer in Georgia.