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The Growing Importance of Georgia Under President Saakashvili

Relations between Washington and Tbilisi have been improving since Georgia's peaceful, democratic revolution less than two years ago. VOA's Jim Bertel reports the visit by U.S. President George W. Bush highlights their shared issues.

The Bush administration said the main goal of the president's visit to Georgia was to acknowledge and encourage the young democracy. Just 18 months after the Rose Revolution toppled the entrenched government of Eduard Shevardnadze, Georgia has inspired similar peaceful uprisings in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

The visit by Mr. Bush is seen by many as a validation of the rapid transformation of the nation under President Mikhail Saakashvili. The U.S.-educated leader is addressing the country's internal corruption, has increased tax collection and, with American assistance, is modernizing the Georgian military. Mr. Saakashvili has also committed troops to the war in Iraq.

James Goldgeier, of the Council on Foreign Relations, says Georgia is looking west for legitimacy, seeking membership both in the North American Treaty Organization, NATO, and the European Union something that, as a neighbor to the south of Russia, may be hard to do.

"It's a more difficult challenge than other parts of Central and Eastern Europe because it's not clear whether, given Georgia's location, whether Georgia really would have the prospect for joining institutions like NATO and the European Union," says Mr. Goldgeier.

Given its location, Radek Sikorski of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington believes Georgia is strategically important to the United States.

"Well, Georgia is a key country because it borders on the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea region with its energy resources. And we need to diversify energy sources away from the Middle East," says Mr. Sikorski.

Experts agree Georgia has a significant role to play in the future geopolitics of oil, as efforts move forward to build multiple pipelines to transport Caspian oil and gas both to the West and East.

The strategic importance of Georgia is not lost on its neighbor Russia. Thousands of Russian troops are still stationed in this former Soviet state, which, Mr. Goldgeier says, has raised considerable tension between Tbilisi and Moscow.

"The Russians have interfered in Georgia's sovereign affairs. They argue that they need to for the purposes of dealing with their own problems with terror, the way they define the problems in Chechnya, says Mr. Goldgeier.

President Bush raised Georgian concerns during his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the weekend, but as cautioned that these disputes take time and patience to resolve.

With the young democracies ringing Russia now looking westward for help, experts believe Russia must choose between trying to impose its will against their objections or cooperating with its neighbors.