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Obama Praises Georgia as Model of Democracy

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili at the White House Jan., 30, 2012.

President Mikheil Saakashvili discussed democratic progress and political reforms in that countryIn a meeting at the White House on Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama and Georgian , along with security cooperation and Georgia's bid for NATO membership.

It was the first White House meeting between President Obama and President Saakashvili, who has strengthened defense and security ties with the United States, and undertaken anti-corruption and other reforms, in a volatile political environment at home.

Mr. Obama noted that the Oval Office talks marked the 20th anniversary of Georgia's independence and the establishment of diplomatic relations with the United States.

He referred to the eighth anniversary of the "Rose Revolution" in Georgia in 2003, which paved the way for new elections and Mr. Saakashvili's assumption of the presidency the following year.

President Obama praised "institution-building" under way that he said Georgia's people should be proud of.

"The importance of making sure that minorities are respected, the importance of a police and system of rule of law that is being observed, the kinds of institution-building that is going to make an enormous difference in the future of not just this generation of Georgians, but future generations of Georgians," Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Obama said the United States anticipates that parliamentary elections later this year will be free and fair, leading to a formal transfer of power he said would solidify many of the changes taking place.

Saying reforms would not have occurred without strong U.S. support, Mr. Saakashvili said the elections will move Georgia's democracy toward what he called a "more diversified and pluralistic" system.

"We will continue to cooperate with you in all these directions, that these gains get solidified and [are] irreversible and nothing can take Georgia away from this track of progress, nothing can bring us back to [a] less democratic, corrupt, retrograde political system, or political actors," Mr. Saakashvili said.

There was no specific mention of continuing tensions between Georgia and Russia, nearly four years after a five-day war over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Georgia broke off diplomatic relations with Moscow in September 2008, and they have not been restored, although there has been discussion of this. The United States recognizes South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, as part of Georgia, and has urged all sides to resolve their differences peacefully.

Without naming Russia, President Saakashvili referred to continued strong U.S. support and cooperation at every level, including for Georgia's defense needs.

"There is a very good understanding at a number of levels, we are grateful for your support for our NATO aspirations, we are very grateful for elevating our defense cooperation further and talking about Georgia's self-defense capabilities and developing it because that is also of course an important message back to my nation," Mr. Saakashvili said.

President Obama said he and President Saakashvili discussed steps to strengthen defense cooperation, saying this involves a wide range of areas, including support for Georgia's eventual NATO membership.

Mr. Obama also thanked Georgia for its contributions to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. And he said cooperation going forward will include a high-level dialogue to strengthen trade relations, including the possibility of a free trade agreement.