Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and U.S. President Barack Obama have held their first ever bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Lisbon and talked about the two countries' strategic partnership, Tbilisi's NATO aspirations, and the U.S. reset with Russia.
Saakashvili told Agence France Presse that he told Obama that Georgia supports NATO's integration with Russia and "hoped that NATO one day would also result in Russia being more civilized towards its neighbors."
Georgia, which Washington considers a key ally, fought a five-day war with Russia in August 2008 and Russia troops are still stationed against Tbilisi's wishes in the Georgian breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
In July, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Russia to end its "occupation" of the two areas and in its bilateral relations with Moscow,
Obama administration diplomats say they have made a point of defending Georgia's territorial sovereignty in the United States' bilateral relations with Russia. But the issue has not derailed strategic cooperation or the Obama administration's 'reset' in Washington-Moscow relations.
Georgia's ambassador to NATO, Grigol Mgaloblishvili, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service by phone from Lisbon that the meeting with Obama was symbolically important.
"Today's meeting -- be it because of its content or symbolic importance -- was very important," he said. "We have no basis to think that the interests of a friend, or strategic partner country, will be sacrificed to the "reset" policy [with Russia]. On the contrary, we expect the "reset" policy to somehow contribute to a change of Russia's behavior, vis-a-vis its immediate neighbors."
The Georgian president said Obama had expressed support for Georgia's territorial integrity and its aspirations to join NATO.
NATO leaders agreed at a 2008 summit in Bucharest that Georgia and Ukraine would eventually become members, but denied the two countries pre-membership status in a bow to fears of some alliance members that the move would anger Russia.
Mgaloblishvili said the two leaders also discussed the U.S.-Georgia Charter on Strategic Partnership and said Obama had praised Saakashvili for his program of government reforms.
"It was a very important meeting. Obviously, holding a meeting parallel to NATO's summit also has a symbolic dimension. But the meeting was very businesslike," Mgaloblishvili said. "Reforms that are underway in Georgia were evaluated very positively [by Obama]. Issues of regional security were discussed, as well as the four dimensions of [the] Georgia-U.S. Strategic Charter. Naturally, support for Georgia's aspiration to NATO integration was underlined."
A statement from Saakashvili's office said both leaders had "underscored that they look forward to deepening their cooperation under the auspices of the US-Georgia Charter on Strategic Partnership, which covers four broad areas: democratic reform; defense and security cooperation; economic cooperation; and people-to-people contacts."
Praise From Obama
Georgia's Deputy Prime Minister and State Minister for Euro-Atlantic Integration Giorgi Baramidze, also speaking on the phone to RFE/RL's Georgian Service from Lisbon, said, "It was very important and pleasant for us that the president of the United States devoted a big chunk of the
meeting to praising the reforms [and] speaking about the importance of the successful reforms undertaken by Georgia."
It's no secret that Saakashvili has been waiting for this meeting for the better part of two years. After enjoying warm personal ties with former U.S. President George W. Bush, who called Georgia a "beacon of liberty" in a 2005 speech in Tbilisi, Saakashvili has not attracted anything approaching that kind of attention from the Obama White House.
A statement from the White House said the two leaders had discussed "further strengthening bilateral relations and increasing .... cooperation."
The statement said, "President Obama reaffirmed U.S. support for Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity [and] expressed his appreciation for Georgia's significant contributions to the ISAF mission in Afghanistan and for the service and sacrifice of its brave troops."
It also said the two leaders "discussed the Georgian government's efforts to implement political, economic, and defense reforms" and Washington's "shared interest in securing democracy, stability, and prosperity in Georgia."
with agency reports.