SourceSeptember 4, 2008
By STEVEN LEE MYERS
BAKU, Azerbaijan — President Bush proposed $1 billion in humanitarian and economic assistance on Wednesday to help rebuild Georgia after its short, disastrous war with Russia last month, but he stopped short of committing the United States to reequipping the country’s battered military.
Mr. Bush announced the infusion of aid as Vice President Dick Cheney arrived in the region, in what the president described as a demonstration that the United States had “a deep and abiding interest” in keeping Georgia and other neighboring states free from a new era of Russian domination.
The proposed aid, along with Mr. Cheney’s high-profile visit to a region the Russians call “the near abroad,” is sure to inflame tensions further. Russia’s leaders have openly accused the United States of having provoked the conflict by providing Georgia with weapons and training for its armed forces, while encouraging its aspirations to join the NATO alliance.
“Georgia has a strong economic foundation and leaders with an impressive record of reform,” President Bush said on Wednesday. “Our additional economic assistance will help the people of Georgia recover from the assault on their country, and continue to build a prosperous and competitive economy.” The new package of aid, which requires approval by Congress, would significantly deepen United States assistance to a country that has been ardently pro-American, though at the cost of the worst friction between the United States and Russia since the end of the cold war.
In a statement released while he traveled in Louisiana, Mr. Bush said that “more than half” of the new aid — that is, at least $500 million — would be made available “in the near term.” The initial money would be used to help Georgians who were displaced during the fighting, which began on the night of Aug. 7 when Georgia tried to establish control over the breakaway South Ossetia region, only to be driven back by Russian troops.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, elaborating on the aid package at a Washington briefing, said that as much as $570 million would be made available by the end of 2008. “We are also confident that the United States will keep a commitment that has strong bipartisan support, for a second phase of support — an additional $430 million,” Ms. Rice said.
“We envision a multi-year commitment, which will begin now under President Bush and, we believe strongly, will endure in the next U.S. administration,” she said.
The aid package would dwarf the $63 million that the United States gave Georgia last year, roughly one-third of it for training soldiers, police officers and border guards. It would also make Georgia one of the largest recipients of American aid. In all, the United States has given Georgia about $1.8 billion in aid since the country gained independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991.
The Russian president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, and prime minister, Vladimir V. Putin, have complained that humanitarian supplies delivered to Georgia by the American Navy and Air Force since Russian forces occupied parts of the country were a cover for new weapons deliveries, an accusation that administration officials have dismissed as baseless.
In his statement, Mr. Bush said that the United States had already contributed $30 million in emergency aid to Georgia, including 1,200 tons of food and relief supplies like tents.
The new announcement followed a pledge by the European Union this week to contribute to rebuilding Georgia, and a separate agreement by the International Monetary Fund to provide Georgia with $750 million in financing. Those steps demonstrated broad diplomatic support for Georgia’s government and for its president, Mikheil Saakashvili, whom Mr. Medvedev derided as “a political corpse” earlier this week.
Mr. Cheney, widely considered one of the administration’s most hawkish officials, appeared to directly challenge such assertions when he arrived in Azerbaijan on Wednesday, the first of three stops he plans to make to bolster countries faced by a more assertive Russia as their neighbor. Mr. Cheney is scheduled to visit Georgia on Thursday, followed by Ukraine.
“We met this evening in the shadow of the recent Russian invasion of Georgia, an act that has been clearly condemned by the international community,” Mr. Cheney told the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev. “President Bush has sent me here with a clear and simple message to the people of Azerbaijan and the entire region: The United States has deep and abiding interests in your well-being and security.”
While its support for Georgia is clear, the administration has yet to settle on what steps, if any, it will take to punish Russia for its incursion deep into Georgia, and for what American and European officials say is Russia’s continuing refusal to abide by an agreement to end the fighting and withdraw its troops from Georgian territory. The European Union has also made its concerns clear, but has stopped short of taking any action against Russia.
While Mr. Cheney had previously planned to visit Azerbaijan and Georgia, the trip took on added significance after the conflict last month.Though a ceasefire ended the fighting, Russian forces have still not withdrawn from parts of Georgia territory near South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia. Russia last week recognized both as independent countries, a move that has failed to win any international backing.
Azerbaijan, like Georgia, is a former Soviet republic that has sought closer ties to the West and the United States, and it is considered a vital crossroads for oil and gas from the Caspian Sea.
Underscoring the point, Mr. Cheney’s first meetings here in Baku were with representatives of two international oil companies: William Schrader of BP Azerbaijan and Robert Satmalchi of Chevron, according to a spokeswoman, Megan M. Mitchell. Those meetings came a day after Mr. Putin announced plans for a new natural gas pipeline from Central Asia to Russia, a route that would increase Russia’s role in providing natural gas to Europe.
Ms. Mitchell said that Mr. Cheney and the executives discussed “their assessments of the energy situation in Azerbaijan and the broader Caspian region — especially in light of Russia’s recent military actions in Georgia.”