New Georgian foreign minister calls US top ally
Georgia's new foreign minister is reassuring the United States that it remains her country's most important ally.
A day after a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Maia Panjikidze on Friday also brushed off U.S. concerns about arrests of allies of President Mikhail Saakashvili.
The U.S. is watching the new Georgian government for signs of drift from the West following October's parliamentary elections. The new prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, defeated Saakashvili's party and assumed much of the government's powers. He quickly pledged to improve relations with Russia and crack down on abuse of power by the former government.
Several officials have already been arrested. On Thursday, Clinton expressed concern about the arrests but also received Panjikidze warmly and praised the country for a peaceful transition of power.
Panjikidze said in an interview with The Associated Press that she and Clinton discussed the arrests and she did not take Clinton's warning as strong criticism. Panjikidze said she told Clinton that the arrests are "about the restoration of justice and everything will be done will be done according to the rule of law."
She said Georgia is willing to invite international observers to monitor the justice process.
Georgian foreign policy will remain largely the same as it was under Saakashvili's government, Panjikidze said, though the government will try to ease tensions with Russia. The country, which fought a war with Russia in 2008 and does not have diplomatic relations with Moscow, appointed a representative of the new government on Russian issues and has made other small gestures. But Panjikidze said that diplomatic relations won't be restored until Russia ends its occupation of two breakaway Georgian provinces that Moscow recognizes as independent.
She said Russia has barely responded to the Georgian efforts to mend ties.
"After Ivanishvili announced the appointment of the special representative, the reaction from Moscow was very strange," she said. Moscow has said it is waiting for Georgia to take further steps, but has not elaborated on what it wants.
Panjikidze said that gaining NATO membership will remain a top priority for Georgia and it's not clear how Georgia can mend relations with Russia as it pursues that goal, which Moscow has stridently opposed.
"We hope that we can strengthen and deepen the relationship with the United States, because the United States remains the most important strategic partner for Georgia," she said.
She said reaching a free trade agreement with the U.S. will be a high priority for Georgia and that the country plans to maintain its large contingent of troops serving in NATO's mission in Afghanistan.