Cheney vows US support for Georgia
Cheney, left, said Russia had acted "illegitimately" [AFP]
Dick Cheney, the US vice-president, says his country will stand by Georgia against its rival Russia, saying Moscow's military push into the former Soviet state was an "illegitimate" act which cast doubt on Russian reliability.
Cheney is the highest-ranking US official to visit Georgia since Tbilisi tried to retake the breakaway region of South Ossetia by force in August and was overwhelmed by the Russian military.
"After your nation won its freedom in the Rose Revolution, America came to the aid of this courageous young democracy," Cheney said on Thursday, referring to the peaceful revolution in 2003 which brought Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia's pro-western president, to power.
"We are doing so again as you work to overcome an invasion of your sovereign territory and an illegitimate, unilateral attempt to change your country's borders by force that has been universally condemned by the free world," Cheney said, standing
next to Saakashvili in Tbilisi.
"Russia's actions have cast grave doubt on Russia's intentions and on its reliability as an international partner, not just in Georgia but across this region and, indeed, throughout the international system."
Control of gas
Matthew Collin, a journalist in Tbilisi, said more than anything, Cheney reiterated his support for Georgia.
"He was keen to stress that the US was keen to stand by Georgia ... and that he would stand by Georgia's Nato ambitions ... those ambitions which have angered the Kremlin so much to the run-up of the war last month."
Since the war, doubts have been cast as to whether Georgia, which has been a transit route for oil and gas going from east to west, can still be a safe and secure environment in which to build a pipeline, Collins said.
"It's believed that Cheney has been trying to drum up support for alternative routes, bypassing Russia ... and that certainly will get some support in the West because, although there has been a war here in Georgia, some Western countries are distinctly worried when they think of the image of the Kremlin's hands on the oil and gas taps of Europe."
Cheney is on a tour of US allies in the region that started in Azerbaijan and is due to continue on to Ukraine later on Thursday, before ending in Italy.
His visit is certain to rile the Kremlin which has accused Washington of fuelling tensions by emboldening Saakashvili, a US-educated lawyer with close ties to the administration of George Bush, the president.
Both Azerbaijan and Georgia are links in the chain of a Western-backed energy corridor bypassing Russia.
Moscow has said it acted in Georgia to prevent what it called genocide when Tbilisi launched its military push into pro-Russian South Ossetia on August 7.
The Kremlin subsequently recognised South Ossetia and a second breakaway region, Abkhazia, as independent states, drawing condemnation from Washington and Europe.
Residents celebrate the recognition of Abkhazian independence [AFP]
It has kept troops in a "buffer zone" on Georgian territory, a move the West says violates a French-brokered peace plan.
Moscow says its troops provide security and their presence is not at odds with the six-point ceasefire.
The US has considered moves to reprimand Moscow for its intervention in Georgia, such as cancelling a lucrative civil nuclear deal, but it has not announced any sanctions and the West appears to have few options for influencing Russia.
On Wednesday, the US announced an aid package of more than $1bn to help Georgia rebuild housing, transportation and other infrastructure destroyed in its five-day war with Russia.