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Biden Backs Georgia's NATO Ambitions, Urges Democratic Reforms

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (left) with Georgian parliamentary speaker Davit Bakradze in Tbilisi on July 23
TBILISI (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has said Washington fully supports a "united" Georgia during a visit to Tbilisi but added that its leaders must do "much more" to strengthen democracy.

The visit prompted a sharp reaction from Moscow, which promised to take "concrete measures" to prevent Georgia from re-arming.

In a speech to the Georgian parliament on July 23, Biden said any improvement in Washington's relations with Moscow would not affect support for Tbilisi.

"We understand that Georgia aspires to join NATO," Biden said. "We fully support that aspiration, and members of parliament, we will work to continue to help you meet the standards of NATO membership."

Russia crushed Georgia's military during an intervention last year over the Georgian pro-Moscow region South Ossetia. The Kremlin has indicated the conflict was partly prompted by its fury over Tbilisi's drive to join NATO.

'We Will Stand With You'

Biden said on July 23 that Washington would not recognize South Ossetia and another pro-Moscow separatist region, Abkhazia, as independent and urged other countries to do the same. But he warned there was no option to re-integrate the two regions by military force.

"We call upon Russia to honor its international commitments, clearly specified in the [August] 12th cease-fire agreement, including withdrawal of all forces to their pre-conflict positions and ultimately out of your territorial area," Biden said.

He added that Washington backs Georgia's "journey to a secure, free, democratic, and once again united Georgia."

"We will stand with you," he said.

Lawmakers interrupted Biden's speech with loud applause. But they were largely silent during a lecture about Georgia's need for democratic reform. Biden said Georgia must find the right balance between its parliament and presidency, veiled criticism of the powerful president, Mikheil Saakashvili.

Earlier in the day, Biden held a closed-door meeting with Saakashvili. The Georgian president asked Biden for continued training for the Georgian military, according to a source close to the Georgian government. But he said the president did not ask for advanced weaponry, as had been expected.

Moscow Matters

Moscow responded to Biden's visit to its southern neighbor with a harsh warning, promising to take "concrete measures" to prevent Georgia from re-arming its military.

The Itar-Tass news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin as saying Russia has "observed efforts by some states to act in an underhanded way to conceal military cooperation with the Georgian side." He said that included "masking it under the guise of 'humanitarian aid.'" Moscow has previously accused Washington of secretly arming Tbilisi.

Biden's visit is part of a four-day trip to Georgia and Ukraine meant to reassure the two former Soviet republics of American support following President Barack Obama's visit to Moscow earlier this month.

Ahead of his meeting with Biden, Saakashvili said American support for Georgia is vital.

"We are also a country under attack, under partial occupation, and we face constant challenges toward our democracy and our security," Saakashvili said. "But despite all of that, our choice is irreversible. We decided to join the free world, Europe, the North Atlantic alliance."

Tbilisi has asked for unarmed U.S. observers to monitor separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia maintains thousands of troops in both provinces in violation of a French-brokered cease-fire ending last summer's hostilities.

'Joe' And 'Mr. President'

Saakashvili heaped praise on Biden during their meeting, calling the U.S. vice president "Joe."

"You know, we've known each other for many years, and I can remember each single meeting we had," Saakashvili said. "I can quote any of these phrases, not only because you are so eloquent, but because you are so important to us and for me personally."

Biden was less effusive. He called Saakashvili "Mr. President."

Biden also met with some of Saakashvili's main political rivals, including Georgia's former UN Ambassador Irakli Alasania and Nino Burjanadze, former speaker of parliament.

Opposition leaders have been calling on Saakashvili to resign, accusing him of authoritarianism and leading Georgia into a disastrous war with Russia. Since May, they have staged ongoing protests in the capital, blocking its main avenue.

Biden ended his trip by visiting internally displaced children from Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Unlike the cooler reception Biden received in Kyiv, his overall welcome in Tbilisi was effusive. But Georgian officials will be wondering what concrete steps Washington is willing to take to back its promises of support.

RFE/RL correspondent Brian Whitmore contributed to this report from Tbilisi, and RFE/RL correspondent Gregory Feifer contributed from Prague