WASHINGTON (AFP)–President George W. Bush praised visiting Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili’s political reform efforts–pledging to help ease his guest’s sometimes strained relations with Russia.
"I’m impressed by this leader. I’m impressed by his vision; I’m impressed by his courage," Bush said as the two leaders shared a warm handshake in the White House Oval Office.
The US president reiterated Washington’s position that Moscow must relinquish two Soviet-era military bases it agreed to leave under a 1999 accord known as the Istanbul commitment–calling their continued existence a "problem."
"We expect the Russian government to honor the Istanbul commitment–that made it very clear that Russia would leave those places," said the US leader.
Bush–who has touted his close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin–praised Saakashvili’s inaugural trip to Moscow and said "it’s important that relations between Georgia and Russia be positive."
"We will work with Vladimir Putin–with whom I’ve developed a good relationship–to make sure relations are positive with Georgia. It’s important for the Georgian people to have strong and peaceful relations with Russia," said Bush.
"I believe Russia’should become our reliable partner and we should improve our relations. But at the same time–we believe that America’s help is absolutely essential," said the Georgian leader.
After meeting with US Secretary of State Colin Powell–Saakashvili said that Georgia would broaden its involvement in Iraq where it sent some 70 elite troops–doctors–and mine-clearing experts last year.
"We are going to expand our role in Iraq," he said.
A US-educated lawyer–Saakashvili won by a landslide in the January 4 election called after Eduard Shevardnadze’s resignation–which was forced by a popular uprising–garnering more than 97 percent of the vote.
His main campaign platform was to battle the rampant corruption that had plagued Georgia during Shevardnadze’s rule–which was ended by a peaceful movement dubbed the "rose revolution."
"I know firsthand that the president will do everything he can to earn the confidence of the people of Georgia by representing their will–by fighting corruption–by working for a system based upon integrity and decency and human rights," said Bush.
"Georgia will become more democratic. Democracy is top priority. Freedom of speech is top priority. Free enterprise–free market is top priority. And I think Georgia can become a role model for the whole region," said Saakashvili.
Georgia has been struggling through years of poverty since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991–and suffered through strained relations with Russia–which accuses it of harboring rebel fighters from separatist Chechnya.
Moscow and Tbilisi have also been at odds over the Soviet-era bases.
Under accords hammered out at a summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe held in Istanbul in 1999–Russia agreed to withdraw the four bases it had maintained in Georgia following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
It has closed two of them–but negotiations over the timetable for the removal of the other two–at Batumi and Akhalkalak–have long been stalled.