TBILISI (Reuters)–US Defense Secretary William Cohen on Sunday pledged to help the former Soviet republic of Georgia patrol its borders–describing the Caucasus country as a model for democratic change.
Cohen–who met Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze at the end of a week-long trip that included trips to South Korea–Japan and Ukraine–said Washington wanted to encourage Georgia’s role in promoting stability in the region.
"Our military is working closely to help Georgia meet its security needs," Cohen told a joint news conference with Shevardnadze. It was the first time a Pentagon chief had visited the republic.
But he gave no clues about when Georgia might realize its goal of joining the NATO military alliance–a move which would infuriate Moscow.
"That door remains open to all. The door stands at the very top of a steep set of stairs," Cohen said.
"NATO does look at Georgia as a country that has made a successful transition to democracy and is in the process of opening its markets. NATO looks at that with great favor."
Cohen praised Shevardnadze–who played a key role in bringing about an end to the Cold War when he served as foreign minister to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
"Your leadership encouraged and made Georgia a model for democratic change," Cohen said.
The two men discussed cash-strapped Georgia’s plans to replace Russian border guards with Georgians.
"Georgia cannot control its borders by itself without US support," Shevardnadze told the news conference.
Cohen said the United States would provide six helicopters and an unspecified number of patrol boats for Georgia’s Black Sea coast area–as well as training assistance.
The United States has been helping Georgia develop its own border controls since 1992. The few remaining Russian border guards are expected to be replaced in the coming months.
Shevardnadze said ways of settling Georgia’s conflict over the breakaway Black Sea region of Abkhazia were also discussed with Cohen. "The United States can do a lot to promote a peaceful solution in Abkhazia," he said.
Abkhazia has enjoyed de facto independence since 1993–when its fighters routed Georgian troops after a year of conflict which killed more than 10,000 people. But its self-declared sovereignty has not been recognized by any country.
Cohen discussed military reforms with Georgian officials–as he had done in Ukraine–where he held talks with President Leonid Kuchma on Saturday.
He also said Georgia planned to send a platoon of a few dozen soldiers to serve as peacekeepers in Kosovo.