Nov 19, 2010

AFP – Obama to Hold First Meeting with Georgia’s Saakashvili

US President Barack Obama will hold his first one-on-one meeting with Georgian counterpart Mikheil Saakashvili on Saturday on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Lisbon, the White House said – AFP report.

Obama was accused by some of snubbing Saakashvili back at a nuclear summit in April in Washington - the outspoken Georgian leader is viewed as a potential thorn in efforts to reset ties between Russia and the United States.

US ally Georgia and Russia fought a brief war in August 2008 that saw Russian forces pour into the country to repel a Georgian military attempt to retake the Moscow-backed rebel region of South Ossetia.

Saakashvili enjoyed extremely close ties with former US president George W. Bush, who famously declared the country a ‘beacon of liberty’ in a 2005 speech to thousands of cheering Georgians in central Tbilisi.

Georgia, which declared independence in April 1991, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, has even named a main road from the airport after Bush.
Relations have cooled under Obama, however, after Saakashvili's international reputation was damaged by a 2007 crackdown on opposition protesters and by his handling of the war with Russia the following year.

Saturday's bilateral, confirmed by White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, is a major fillip for Saakashvili, who has been gradually rebuilding ties with the West following the damaging 2008 conflict.

High-profile visits by Western diplomats including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner have helped him weather opposition protests at home and constant Russian antagonism.

US officials repeatedly voiced support for Georgia’s territorial integrity after the 2008 war, which saw Russian forces pour into the country to repel a Georgian military assault on Moscow-backed South Ossetia.

After the war, Russia recognized South Ossetia and a second breakaway Georgian region called Abkhazia as independent states, a move that has been followed by only a handful of countries.
Infuriating Saakashvili, Russia has since established permanent military bases and deployed hundreds of troops and border guards in the regions.

Clinton reassured Georgia in July with a pledge of steadfast support and called on Russia to end its "occupation" of the two breakaway Georgian regions.

But Washington and Moscow have pledged not to let differences over Georgia hamper a reset in their relations launched by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Medvedev will become this weekend the first Russian president to attend a NATO summit since the 2008 Georgia conflict.

Georgia is a staunch US ally that hopes to join NATO. It has made a priority of sending troops to US and NATO-led military operations and had 2,000 troops in Iraq, the third-largest force in support of US operations there, before pulling them out in 2008.

Georgia sent 175 servicemen to Afghanistan to join the NATO effort against the Taliban in November last year. Four Georgian soldiers were killed in combat operations in Afghanistan on Thursday.

Saakashvili, who studied and worked in the United States for many years, became president in January 2004 after leading the bloodless "Rose Revolution" against predecessor Eduard Shevardnadze.

NATO leaders agreed at a 2008 summit in the Romanian capital that Georgia and Ukraine would eventually become members of the alliance, but -- under pressure from European leaders wary of alienating Russia -- denied the two countries coveted pre-membership status.