WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili have discussed security cooperation and a possible free-trade agreement at a White House meeting.
Obama told the Georgian leader that a free-trade agreement (FTA) with Tbilisi was a "possibility" and would be a "win-win" situation for both countries.
Obama said "a lot of work" needed to be done prior to crafting an agreement, which would eliminate tariffs, quotas, and other trade restrictions.
"We think [a free-trade agreement would be] a win-win [situation] for the United States and for Georgia, as we continue to find opportunities for businesses to invest in Georgia, for us to be able to sell Georgia our goods and services, and Georgia to be able to sell theirs as well," Obama said.
Saakashvili said a free-trade pact would help Georgia's evolution as a nation.
"It's very important that you mentioned, obviously, [the] prospect of a free-trade agreement with Georgia, because that's going to attract a lot of additional activity to my country and basically help in our nation-building process," Saakashvili said.
Amid a strong diplomatic push by the United States, Georgia in October dropped its opposition to Russia's admission into the World Trade Organization. U.S. interest in building stronger economic ties to Georgia is being seen by some observers as appreciation for Tbilisi's cooperation.
Zoe Reyners, a spokeswoman for the Georgian Embassy in Washington, told RFE/RL that talk of deepened economic ties was one among a number of the highlights of the meeting for the Georgian side.
"There are three specific points that we were very happy about -- that were concrete deliverables for us," Reyners said. "The first one is that Obama is favorable to setting up a high-level committee on trade cooperation and even explore the [possibility] of an FTA. The second thing is in terms of security cooperation. The key word was the 'elevation' of security cooperation -- enhancing the Georgian capacities of self-defense. Finally, President Obama praised Georgia as a role model in terms of reforms for the region."
Obama also reaffirmed U.S. support for Georgia's long-held desire to join NATO and thanked the country for its contribution to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan. He called Tbilisi "one of the most dedicated contributors outside of NATO."
A NATO summit set for this May in Chicago is expected to take up the issue of membership for the Caucasus state.
'Pluralistic Political Scene'
The U.S. president congratulated Georgia on 20 years of independence and on reforms made since the Rose Revolution ushered Saakashvili into power eight years ago.
He said Georgia should be "extraordinarily proud" of its progress and status as a "responsible player on the world scene."
Obama also said he anticipated fair and free elections in this October's parliamentary vote and 2013's presidential election.
Saakashvili pledged the elections will create a "diversified and pluralistic political scene."
In January, both the United States and the European Union said the new Georgian Electoral Code law does not adequately address "perceptions of inequality within the electoral system."
Critics say the law fails to address past criticisms by international election monitors or to incorporate proposals by opposition parties that might undercut the ruling party's large parliamentary majority.
Saakashvili has also been accused of cracking down on dissent and restricting the media.
Written by Richard Solash