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Clinton Calls for End of Russian 'Occupation' of Georgia

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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is calling for an end to the Russian occupation of the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  Clinton's message raises the question of whether U.S. support for Georgia compromises relations with Russia.

Standing alongside Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili in Tbilisi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated a call for Russia to end its military presence in two breakaway Georgian regions.

"We continue to call for Russia to abide by the August 2008 cease-fire commitment signed by President Saakashvili and President Medvedev, including ending the occupation and withdrawing Russian troops from South Ossetia and Abkhazia to their pre-conflict positions," said Clinton.

Clinton repeatedly pressed the issue during her tour of Eastern Europe and the Southern Caucasus, which concluded in Georgia.  South Ossetia and Abkhazia are heavily populated by ethnic Russians and have resisted integration with Georgia.  Only a few other nations join Russia in recognizing the two regions as independent.

President Saakashvili notes that Clinton's use of the word "occupation" is especially meaningful.

"America was the first one to mention this word, and now the others are following," said Saakashvili.  "President Obama was the first one to call a spade a spade, basically to say it was an invasion.  Because before, as you remember, the term "disproportionate use of force" was used, as if there is a proportionate use to occupy other countries' territory."

The Georgian issue is a major point of disagreement between the United States and Russia.

The topic came up during a recent meeting in Washington between U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev.  Both sides said the disagreement would not significantly impede relations.

Alexander Rondeli, the director of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies welcomed Clinton's use of the term "occupation".  But he added that healthy relations with Russia could be good for everybody.

"It is absolutely important for Americans to have normal relationship with Russia," said Rondeli.  "It is absolutely important for everyone to have a wealthy and healthy Russia; it means democratic [sic] and also a country which acts according to international norms and rules."

Rondeli said an important message of Clinton's trip is that it shows the United States has not abandoned Georgia, and will remain an influence in the region.

Nicolay Petrov is a scholar-in-residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center.  He says there is nothing new in the American position and that he expects a pretty calm reaction from Russia as long as the United States does not turn words into action.

"What was told in Tbilisi, I think, that as far as it is not connected to any real moves made by the Obama administration it is nothing serious for the Kremlin," said Tbilisi.

Tbilisi says Moscow maintains a position that it has the right to first agree to any action another country wants to take in former-Soviet states such as Georgia.

In addition to Georgia, Clinton also visited Ukraine, Poland, Azerbaijan and Armenia.  She is returning to Washington to take part in a meeting Tuesday at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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