A group of U.S. Republican Senators has further voiced the US's support for Georgia’s NATO aspiration and efforts to replace the current Russian-led peacekeeping operations in the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflict zones.
The group, led by Arizona Senator John McCain, visited Georgia on August 26-29 and toured regions of the country together with President Saakashvili. The delegation included Senators Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, John Sununu of New Hampshire, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Richard Burr of North Carolina and Mel Martinez of Florida.
Apart from Tbilisi, the US Senators visited the towns of Mtskheta and Gori, the high-mountainous region of Svaneti, the Autonomous Republic of Adjara, and a newly built military base in Senaki, western Georgia. On August 27 the delegation visited the breakaway South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali, where a meeting with the secessionist authorities was held.
While visiting the Senaki military base on August 28 Senator McCain thanked the Georgian servicemen for their contribution to the peacekeeping operation in Iraq and said that Georgia is the United States’ “best friend.”
Speaking at a news conference on August 28, which was held in Tbilisi at the conclusion of the visit, the U.S. Senators said Georgia has made impressive progress since the 2003 Rose Revolution.
“In a last few years we have seen tremendous progress. And we are very pleased to see that the people of Georgia are enjoying a much better life,” Senator McCain said. However, he added that many challenges lie ahead as the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts remain unsolved and Russia maintains a military presence in Georgia.
Senator McCain also stressed that “whether there is a Republican or a Democrat, or whoever is President of the United States, there will be the continued strong support of the American President, Congress and people [for Georgia].”
Senator Saxby Chambliss noted that “it is pretty obvious that the quality of life of people in Georgia has improved since the Rose Revolution,” and also hailed the progress made in building the Georgian armed forces.
“Georgia is on the right road to resurrecting itself under the strong leadership of President Saakashvili,” he added.
Senator Lindsey Graham said that he was “impressed with [Georgia’s] efforts to reform the legal system.”
Senator John Sununu noted that the delegation has “seen in Georgia a tremendous change and opportunity that comes by eliminating corruption and by embracing real economic reforms.”
Georgia ‘Deserves’ NATO Membership
In his statement at the news conference Senator Graham stressed that “the Georgian people deserve to be in NATO.”
“If Georgia were part of NATO it would make the alliance stronger and the world a better place in my opinion… I hope that the NATO members will understand that having Georgia in the alliance strengthens the alliance and will make this region much more stable,” Senator Graham said.
He also noted Georgia’s progress in terms of achieving “technical compliance with NATO.”
The U.S. Senators said that despite impressive progress, huge challenges remain while conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia remain unsolved.
Speaking about his visit to Tskhinvali, Senator McCain said that the trip was “not very productive.”
“Because there was not a direct response to our questions about why OSCE has been blocked from doing its job; why there has been no progress on peace initiatives from Georgia, from the UN, from the OSCE, from other organizations - there has been no progress. I think that the attitude there is best described by what you see by driving in [Tskhinvali]: a very large billboard with a picture of Vladimir Putin on it, which says 'Vladimir Putin Our President'. I do not believe that Vladimir Putin is now, or ever should be, the President of sovereign Georgian soil,” Senator McCain said.
Calls for Replacing Russian Peacekeepers
The delegation's visit to Georgia came two days after influential U.S. Republican Senator Richard Lugar, chairman of the foreign relations committee, traveled to Georgia. Senator Lugar said during his visit that Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia and South Ossetia should be replaced by more neutral international forces. The position was reiterated by Senator McCain on August 28.
“We agree with Senator Lugar that peacekeeping forces are not fulfilling the meaning of peacekeeping and they need to be replaced or changed so that they reflect a true peacekeeping mission… It is time to evaluate whether the Russian peacekeepers are carrying out their mission in an objective fashion. I believe that a serious consideration should be given to a new force from either OSCE, or the UN, which can do a job that is more credible than the present Russian peacekeeping force,” Senator McCain said.