TBILISI (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced concern over Russian plans to build up military bases in Georgian rebel regions and called on Moscow to end its “occupation” of Georgian territory two years after a war.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin shot back that some people believed Moscow’s forces had liberated Georgia’s breakaway South Ossetia region in the August 2008 war, rather than occupying it.
In Georgia on a tour to assure Russia’s neighbours that President Barack Obama’s “reset” with the Kremlin will not harm them, Clinton said Washington is still pressing Moscow to loosen its grip on South Ossetia and another rebel region, Abkhazia.
“I came to Georgia with a clear message from President Obama and myself: The United States is steadfast in its commitment to Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Clinton said at a briefing with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
The White House consistently urges Russia to comply with the ceasefire that ended the 2008 war, “including ending the occupation and withdrawing Russian troops from South Ossetia and Abkhazia to their pre-conflict positions”, she said.
Hours later in Moscow, Putin -- without mentioning Clinton or the United States by name -- took issue.
“Some believe it is occupied and some believe it has been liberated,” he said in televised remarks to reporters.
Putin also suggested Georgia should not look to the United States to solve its problems.
“One shouldn’t seek a solution on the side,” he said.
Along with support, Clinton warned Georgia against provoking the Kremlin or letting itself be goaded. The United States appears to be mindful of the tension that led to war -- and of concerns the previous administration’s enthusiastic support for Saakashvili may have emboldened him to take on Moscow.
“I would strongly urge that Georgia not be baited or provoked into any action that would give any excuse to the Russians to take any further aggressive movements,” she said.
Clinton also urged Saakashvili to do more to bolster democracy, suggesting the best way to coax the separatist provinces back into the fold would be through powerful political and economic improvements.
“The United States will do everything we can to assist our partners, inside and outside the Georgian government, as they strive to strengthen democratic institutions and processes,” Clinton said.
A staunch U.S. ally, the American-educated Saakashvili said initial concerns had faded and Georgia was convinced the “reset” was being done “the right way ... not just changing relations with Russia at the expense of others”.
Echoing Washington’s argument for embracing Russia more warmly than during the previous U.S. administration, when ties were badly frayed, Saakashvili expressed confidence the “reset” would ultimately “lead to a more modern, more open Russia”.
“That’s only good for all of us around it,” he said.
In August 2008, Russia crushed a Georgian assault on South Ossetia, launched after days of clashes between Georgian and rebel forces and years of tension between Moscow and Tbilisi.
Russia strengthened its control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia after the war and has signed deals with the regions -- which it calls independent nations -- to build permanent military bases.
“We consider such construction to be in contradiction to Russia’s 2008 ceasefire commitments,” Clinton said.
She criticised Russia’s “invasion and ongoing occupation” of Georgian territory.
Asked how and when the issue might be resolved, Clinton gave no concrete blueprint or timeline, suggesting all Georgia can do is build up as a democratic, economically thriving nation.
“Whether it’s in months or years, it’s important for Georgia to continue its modernisation reform efforts,” she said.
Russia’s conflict with Georgia caused the worst rift with the West since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. It also led some U.S. officials to question Saakashvili’s judgment and the wisdom of the Bush administration’s staunch support.
Washington has since sounded less eager to grant Georgia NATO membership -- a prospect that analysts have cited as fuelling Russia’s actions in the 2008 war.
Clinton’s trip also took her to Ukraine, Poland, Armenia and Azerbaijan -- all ex-Soviet republics or satellites.
Clinton told Ukraine that NATO’s door remained open, and in Poland witnessed the signing of a pact which allows the United States and Poland to carry out plans to station U.S. missile interceptors on Polish soil.
(Writing by Conor Humphries and Steve Gutterman; Editing by Michael Roddy)