BATUMI, Georgia (Civil Georgia)—Free and fair elections that will result in a fully democratic transfer of power will be the “single best thing” Georgia can do to advance its security, democracy and international reputation, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during her visit to Georgia on Tuesday.
Speaking at a joint news conference after meeting with Secretary Clinton in Black Sea resort town of Batumi, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said that democratic transfer of power was “normal part” of any democracy and that process was already underway in Georgia, citing direct election of Tbilisi mayor two years ago, as well as “de-centralization” process also involving relocation of Parliament from Tbilisi to Kutaisi.
After opening the U.S.-Georgia Strategic Partnership Commission session, Clinton participated in a ceremony of commissioning Georgian coast guard patrol boats, upgraded with the U.S. assistance, met with opposition representatives and held talks with Saakashvili, followed by a joint news conference.
Clinton announced three “new areas of defense cooperation” with Georgia after talks with President Saakashvili.
“The United States will provide training and support for Georgian defense courses to better monitor your coasts and skies,” she said. “We will help upgrade Georgia’s utility helicopter fleet so that they can more easily transport supplies and people throughout your country. We are also going to help Georgia give its officers the 21st century training they need for today’s changing missions.”
“With these efforts Georgia will be a stronger international partner with improved capacity for self-defense,” Clinton said.
“The United States will stand with the Georgian people as you take the next steps to strengthen the rights, freedom and opportunities of all your citizens. Every Georgian deserves to live in a tolerant, democratic and inclusive society,” she said.
“We expect Georgia will hold free and fair elections this fall and then completely democratic transfer of power in 2013 and we believe that every party and every candidate should respect the political process and we look forward to welcoming a strong relationship with those that the Georgian people choose,” Clinton said.
In his opening remarks at the press conference, Saakashvili hailed U.S. support as “instrumental, fundamental for our survival” and said that his government “is committed to have free and fair parliamentary elections this October.”
“I am sure these elections will express the free will of the Georgian people,” he said and reiterated Georgia’s willingness to host as many international observers as possible in order to make upcoming elections “as transparent, as fair, as trustworthy as we can get.”
In 2013 Saakashvili will be termed out, and the US is interested in a smooth transfer of power in that country, which will hold parliamentary election in October.
“Let me just emphasize how important it is that the decisions that are made by Georgia’s leaders and citizens demonstrate a firm commitment to building of democratic institutions. That’s what the President was just saying that in any democracy institutions have to be more important than people; individual leaders should come and go, but institutions should be strengthened and one of the ways of doing that is to have election – first for the parliament then for presidency – that are universally regarded as valid; that will speak volumes about where Georgia is on your path of sustainable democracy,” Clinton said.
“I believe that 2012 parliamentary elections and 2013 presidential elections are really in hands of the Georgian people,” said Clinton. “I believe that they will be a crucial indicator of the progress Georgia has made on its democratic path. The President and I… have expressed our hopes that this will be a model election that will provide competitive electoral environment.”
U.S. to Accept Neutral Travel Documents
Clinton also announced that the U.S. will start accepting neutral travel documents. This program initiated by the Georgian government, provides “neutral” travel documents to residents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are now under Russian control.
“Today we also discussed ways Georgia can reach out to the people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, including providing status neutral travel documents and identification cards,” she said.
“Soon U.S. embassies and consulates around the world will accept the status neutral travel document for any resident from these regions who chooses to use them for travel or study and in the United States. This would be a strong step towards reconciliation and supports a peaceful and just resolution of the conflict,” Clinton said.