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US-Georgia Relations at Center of Saakashvili Foreign Policy

U.S. President George Bush was among the first western leaders to congratulate Mikhail Saakashvili on his election last month to a second term as Georgia's president. In this report from Washington, VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at the state of relations between Washington and Tbilisi.

Mikhail Saakashvili received 53 percent of the votes cast in elections described by international observers as free and fair, despite some irregularities. But Georgian opposition groups still contest the election results.

Mr. Saakashvili was forced to call early elections following demonstrations in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi. Tens of thousands of demonstrators spilled into the streets in November, calling for the president's resignation and accusing him of presiding over an increasingly authoritarian government.

Police used tear gas, water cannons, baton charges and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. Many observers say that was the low point of Mr. Saakashvili's presidency.

The United States and other western countries have been very supportive of Mr. Saakashvili since he first came to power four years ago. But Ronald Suny from the University of Chicago, says Washington and others were troubled by Mr. Saakashvili's strong-arm tactics.

"The United States was upset and called Saakashvili to task after the November 7 demonstrations and the use of the police and so forth against them," he said. "They may have been a little embarrassed by 'their boy', in fact, acting in such a rough way with the opposition. But still, Georgia is considered a friendly state and an ally. But Georgia cannot go too far."

Mr. Saakashvili has been pursuing a pro-western foreign policy, moving his country away from Russia, toward the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and toward the European Union.

Olga Oliker with the RAND Corporation, says that trend will continue, but she says it is not just a pro-western policy.

"There is a difference between pro-western and pro-American and I think we should be clear that Saakashvili has pursued primarily a pro-United States policy: sending troops to Iraq, working very hard to build close ties with the United States," she said. "He has certainly worked to build ties with NATO, with the European Union as well - but really, his focus has been on the United States. And with a change of government in the United States coming, a change of government in Russia coming, some of the options for the Georgians may shift a bit as well, even as a new political grouping in Georgia with a new parliament soon, a weaker presidency might limit some of the choices and options."

Georgia's pro-U.S. policy has angered Russia. But many analysts say there are signs that strained relations between Tbilisi and Moscow might be easing.

In his inauguration speech on January 20, Mr. Saakashvili said Georgia extends the hand of friendship to Russia. And Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who attended the ceremony, said his presence confirms Russia's intention to normalize ties with Georgia.

As for relations between Washington and Tbilisi, many experts - including Robert Legvold from Columbia University - say they have not cooled, despite the government's violent crackdown against demonstrators last November.

"If cooling means that we have stood back from the relationship a bit and said look, you still have some things to prove to us and we are therefore not going to passionately be pushing for a membership action plan in NATO at Bucharest which is the next round in the spring for Georgia - and I think that is the U.S. position, we are not going to push as hard at it as we might have otherwise - I would describe that as standing back from the relationship, rather than rising tensions," he said.

But Legvold says he does not believe Washington and other Western nations will give Mr. Saakashvili unconditional support, as they did following his election to the presidency four years ago, following a popular movement known as the Rose Revolution. Legvold and others believe the support will be based on whether Mr. Saakashvili moves Georgia firmly on the path of democracy.