U.S. Offers Closer Ties to Georgia

APRice and Vashadze signing a strategic partnership agreement at the State Department in Washington on Friday.��
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili hopes a new cooperation agreement with the United States will help the former Soviet nation integrate more quickly with the West.

Speaking in Tbilisi on Saturday, Saakashvili said the "charter on strategic partnership" reflects strong U.S. support for Georgia, which waged an August war with Russia.

Saakashvili told a briefing that the agreement would help strengthen Georgia's ties with the West. The new U.S. blueprint for cooperation with Georgia was signed in Washington on Friday.

The document, which U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed Friday, is bound to antagonize Moscow but provides no guarantees that President-elect Barack Obama will continue to support Georgia with the same enthusiasm as the Bush administration when he takes office on Jan. 20.

The broad outline of U.S. cooperation is also unlikely to move the European countries that have blocked Georgia's path to NATO membership, in part over concerns of alienating Moscow.

Last year, Russia's military pushed within artillery range of Georgia's capital Tbilisi after Georgia sought to reclaim a Russian backed breakaway region. Peter Van Praagh, an analyst with the German Marshall Fund in Washington, said the war demonstrated that the West would not come to Georgia's aid militarily.

"That is as true today as before they signed this, and it is important for Georgian leadership to remember as they convey this," he said.

The document outlines broad areas of economic, security and cultural cooperation as well as political reforms that Georgia should undertake with U.S. help. It emphasizes long-held U.S. support for Georgian territorial integrity -- which means opposition to Russia's recognition of two breakaway Georgian territories: Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Obama has expressed support for Georgian territorial integrity and its NATO aspirations. But he is already facing calls from Europe and elsewhere to improve relations with Moscow.

In an interview, Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze said he believed that the current administration consulted the incoming Obama administration on the document, but he was not certain.

"The previous administration is not going to do anything without consulting the new one," he said.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza would not specify who had been consulted on Obama's team. "We are consulting with everybody," he said when asked about conversations with the incoming administration.

Ahead of the signing, U.S. and Georgian officials said the document points to a new path toward NATO membership through a NATO-Georgia commission. The document also outlines U.S. help in strengthening Georgia's military and bringing it up to NATO standards.