U.S. Vice President Mike Pence addresses servicemen participating in the Noble Partner 2017 joint multinational military exercises outside Tbilisi, Georgia, Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence addresses servicemen participating in the Noble Partner 2017 joint multinational military exercises outside Tbilisi, Georgia, Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017.

TBILISI, GEORGIA - On the latest leg of his first official tour of Eastern Europe, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence assured regional allies the United States will stand by their side.

Facing a crowd of Georgian and international journalists at government offices in Tbilisi, Pence, standing alongside his host, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, said America first does not mean America alone.

“President Trump has sent me with the simple message to you and to the people of Georgia, we are with you, we stand with you ...  America stands with Georgia,” said Pence.

The vice president came to Georgia, the only non-NATO member country on his itinerary, from Estonia, a model of a successful EU-leaning transformation, before heading to Montenegro, NATO’s newest member.

Pence is the highest-ranking American official of the current administration to visit Georgia and the larger Caucasus region.

“Thanks to your help, Georgia is no longer a Soviet or a post-Soviet country,” said Kvirikashvili at Tuesday’s joint press conference.  “Today we are a democracy closely associated with the European Union.”

Kvirikashvili’s comments, in which he touted Georgia’s role as “a key strategic partner of America,” come amid an ongoing partial Russian occupation.

About 60 kilometers from the news conference, Russian tank units maintain control over 20 percent of Georgian terrain, a holdover from the August 2008 five-day war.

Pence reiterated the U.S. non-recognition policy regarding the Russian-occupied zone, condemning Moscow’s presence on Georgian soil, what many observers describe as an evolving, “creeping” occupation.

“President Trump has called on Russia to cease its destabilizing activities,” Pence said, adding that President Donald Trump will soon sign sanctions against Russia.

“Our country prefers a constructive relations with Russia, based on cooperation and common interest.  But the president and our Congress are unified in our message to Russia: a better relationship, lifting of sanctions, will require Russia to reverse actions that caused sanctions to be imposed in the first place.”

'Reset' jitters

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visited Georgia about a year after the 2008 war.  Biden’s visit came shortly after the Obama administration’s “reset” policy with Russia, which caused concern among many Europeans that the United States would give Moscow a pass for its invasion of Georgia.

Years later, Russia annexed Crimea and destabilized Eastern Ukraine, which led the West to unilaterally impose sanctions on Russia.

Both Georgia and Ukraine are aspiring NATO members.  Some observers argue Georgia’s 2008 war and Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea could have been avoided if those countries hadn’t been denied Membership Action Plan status at NATO’s Bucharest summit in April, 2008.

“President Trump and I stand by the 2008 NATO Bucharest statement, which made it clear that Georgia, one day, will become a member of NATO,” said Pence.

According to recent nationwide polls carried by National Democratic Institute, 66 percent of Georgia’s population approves of the government’s stated goal to join NATO.  Sixty-two percent of Georgians say the country should join the European Union.  Both organizations are largely seen as security instruments that would protect Georgia independence and development.

2017 represents the 25th anniversary of U.S.-Georgian diplomatic relations.

George W. Bush is the only U.S. president who has visited Georgia, which he called “a beacon of democracy.”

This story originated in VOA's Georgian Service