U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a robust show of support for Georgia today by vowing to uphold its "territorial integrity" and voicing opposition to its inclusion in a Russian "sphere of influence."
The blunt message, delivered at a joint news conference with the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, appeared to be designed as a warning to Moscow in the wake of Russia's August 2008 invasion of its Caucasian neighbor.
> Caucasus Map
"The United States is steadfast in its commitment to Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity. The United States does not recognize spheres of influence," she said, referring to Russia's claim that it has privileged interests and special influence in former Soviet states like Georgia.
Her comments came during a visit to Georgia, the last leg of a five-country visit to Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.
Describing her words as a message from President Barack Obama and herself, Clinton said she had expressed similar sentiments to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during his trip to Washington last month.
Clinton also called on Russia to meet the commitments it made in a cease-fire agreement following the invasion -- including withdrawing its troops to the positions they held before the attack.
Russia should permit humanitarian access to the portions of Georgia its troops still occupy, the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and refrain from building more permanent military bases there, she said.
She had earlier told a group of Georgian women leaders that the United States opposed Russia's ongoing "occupation" and called for diplomatic efforts aimed at ending it to be stepped up.
"We continue to speak out, as I have, on this trip against continuing occupation and we support the use of the Geneva mechanism," Clinton said, "but it needs to be revived, and it needs to be intensified, and we intend to try to do that. I am not going to stand here and tell you that this is an easy problem, because it is not."
The Obama administration is trying to strike a balance between pressing the Russians to withdraw their forces from South Ossetia and Abkhazia and convincing the Georgian government that building up its military is not the right solution.
At a question-and-answer session, Clinton also insisted the administration had a "democracy agenda" for Georgia in response to a questioner who said the country suffered from human rights abuses that had been ignored by President George W Bush:
"The potential of this country to serve as a beacon and model for democracy and progress is extraordinary, and for me, it is in large measure is rooted in day-to-day changes that have occurred here in Georgia," Clinton said.
Armenia's Genocide Memorial
Earlier, on a visit to Armenia's capital, Yerevan, Clinton laid a wreath at the Genocide Memorial built in homage to up to 1.5 million ethnic Armenians massacred by Ottoman Turkish forces during World War I.
However, she was criticized for failing to publicly utter the word "genocide" by the Armenian National Committee of America, a Washington-based lobbying group, which decried her visit as "a missed opportunity."
Both Clinton and Obama pledged to recognize the Armenian killings as genocide during their 2008 presidential campaigns, but have not done so.
Calling For Karabakh Settlement
Visiting both Azerbaijan and Armenia on July 4, Clinton urged the two countries to end a long-running dispute over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Speaking at a press conference in Yerevan, she said the United States was ready to help achieve a lasting peace settlement.
"It is in the interests, first and foremost, of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh -- but certainly of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the greater region -- to work as hard as we can together to come up with an acceptable, lasting settlement of this conflict," Clinton said.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have been in dispute over the territory since a 1994 cease-fire ended a three-year war that claimed thousands of lives.
Clinton also called on Turkey to move forward on stalled efforts to normalize ties with Armenia and on opening the two countries' border.
In Yerevan, Clinton said she has raised U.S. concerns about a recently enacted Armenian media law and was told the government might consider changing it in the fall.
Clinton said she was given the assurances in a meeting with President Serzh Sarkisian on July 4. She was speaking during a meeting with civil society activists today.
The law passed by parliament last month regulates the introduction of digital television and radio in Armenia.
Opponents at home and media experts of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have warned it could curb pluralism on radio and television.