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Joint Press Conference with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
August 04, 1999

Joint Press Conference with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, Tbilisi, Georgia

President Shevardnadze: I would like to welcome our guest, the Secretary of Defense of the United States, his Excellency William Cohen. I would like to note that we attach great importance to his visit to Georgia. Today I have already had the opportunity on behalf of the people of Georgia to extend our profound gratitude to the United States, to the administration of the country, and to the people of the United States for all the assistance and support that the United States has provided to us in the process of building an independent state here in Georgia. And, of course, this refers also to our cooperation in the security and defense fields and also--as the problems of defense and security are relevant not only to Georgia but to the region as well--to the broader region.

Our meeting today has been very constructive. We have touched upon a great number of issues. We discussed problems pertaining to the situation in the region, to the conflicts that still exist in the region of the Caucasus, and, first and foremost, we discussed issues relating to the possibilities of speeding up a settlement in Abkhazia. You know, this is a very difficult and complicated problem. I have expressed my hope that the United Nations Security Council--of which the United States is a permanent member, and at the same time the United States is one of the members of the Friends of the Secretary General, the group of friends of Georgia--be more active in promoting a settlement in Abkhazia.

We also discussed problems pertaining to the transport of energy resources from Central Asia and the Caspian region to the West. We also discussed the problems of restoration and reestablishment of the Great Silk Road. All these issues need to be taken very seriously, and we have to attach great importance to the problems of defense because the intensification of transport through the Caucasus, being a very positive development on the one hand, is a phenomenon by which we can risk increased trafficking of drugs, terrorist movement, and it is imperative for us to prevent these phenomena.

Of course we also discussed issues of developing the military--the armed forces of Georgia. I have more than once mentioned that the United States is providing very serious assistance to us in military development and also in dealing with problems of border control. You also know very well that today Georgian borders are patrolled by the Georgian Border Guard, and this has been made possible due to the financial and economic assistance that is provided to us by the United States.

I would like to add here that we also discussed our future plans. The United States is planning to provide assistance to Georgia in training military personnel and dealing with other relevant issues.

I would like to extend my profound gratitude to Mr. William Cohen. This visit is a very important event for Georgia. We view this visit as one of the manifestations of the support that the United States is providing to Georgia in the process of building democracy and in the process of building its defense.

Secretary Cohen: Mr. President, thank you for your very kind and generous words. Let me say to all who are here that it is a great pleasure to be in Georgia and to be meeting with President Shevardnadze. Mr. President, you have embraced democracy, and your vision and your leadership and courage have made Georgia a model for democratic change. Georgia's active participation in the Partnership for Peace and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council shows your commitment to peace and stability throughout Europe. And one side of that is your support of peace and justice in Kosovo. You supported NATO's efforts to halt the ethnic brutality in Kosovo, and Georgia plans to send a platoon that will serve with Turkish troops in the American sector. The United States strongly supports Georgia's progress in democracy, Georgia's sovereignty, and Georgia's territorial integrity. With U.S. assistance, Georgia has begun to control its own borders. The helicopters that we plan to provide will support this effort and a variety of military and humanitarian activities. Our militaries are working closely together to help Georgia meet its security needs and to support Georgia's goal as a force for stability in the region. This year our militaries will carry out 30 joint exercises--training events and other contacts. That's a threefold increase since 1995. We have established a bilateral working group to help Georgia improve its defense planning, its resource allocation, and military training. Georgia's military reform program is serious--it's sensible and successful. These programs are working because they support the commitment that our countries share to democracy, peace, and stability. And I am pleased that our countries are able to work together to advance those goals. And in closing, Mr. President, let me say once again how much I admire your leadership and your vision for your people. I'm mostly impressed, I've been impressed with your leadership, talents, which you have brought to Georgia.

Q: What is your opinion about the Russian bases stationed in Georgia--whether or not you find it expedient that Russian bases be stationed in Georgia and whether or not it is possible that in due time American bases will be stationed in Georgia instead of the Russian military bases?

Secretary Cohen: I was just told to slow my answers down a bit. With respect to the question of Russian bases, the United States has always taken the position that a sovereign country should determine whether or not it allows foreign soldiers on its soil--that it must do so by consent. Whether the Russian forces should continue to remain in Georgia is something that only the Georgian people can decide. So that is a matter for Georgia to resolve. With respect to the future relationship between Georgia and the United States, that, of course, is a matter that will have to await unfolding events for the future, but we are always taking the position that we only go where we are welcome and only with the consent of a country's people.

President Shevardnadze: I'd like to add just a couple of words. The problems of the Russian military bases stationed in Georgia will be resolved in the process of negotiations between Georgia and Russia.

Q: During the summit in Washington, the U.S. president said in his interview with my station that prior to Kosovo, there had been humanitarian catastrophes in other regions of the world as well, but that what had been accomplished by the United States in Kosovo had never been done in other regions of the world. [During that interview, hope was expressed that such a double standard would not be applied in the future (omitted by interpreter)]. I'm interested in whether or not you agree that the United Nations is creating certain difficulties in dealing with the problems of similar humanitarian catastrophes, and probably the United Nations is not working efficiently toward resolving the problems. [Yesterday, the United Nations did not adopt language in a resolution regarding Abkhazia that condemned ethnic cleansing there, though ethnic cleansing was mentioned during (omitted by interpreter)] OSCE summits in Madrid and Budapest. Do you think that the United Nations is ill prepared to resolve similar problems?

President Shevardnadze: Here is my usual answer to that question; you have more than once heard my answer to a similar question. We are dissatisfied with all the resolutions of the U.N. Security Council that do not reflect principal attitudes toward ethnic cleansing as a crime against humanity. At the same time, today, we discussed with the secretary of defense that we support peaceful settlement of conflicts. The military operations that have been carried out in Kosovo mean that today the world is realizing the necessity of defining such events as ethnic cleansing. But in order for Georgia to yield certain results from such definitions, certain time is needed, and in order for this to happen, it is necessary to accomplish what is planned in Kosovo. We need to proceed from the realistic possibility that exists today. At the previously mentioned summits in Lisbon and Budapest, the United States demanded that true definitions be given to events in Abkhazia, but, unfortunately, the United Nations Security Council is not yet ready to give such a definition to the events in Abkhazia.

Secretary Cohen: I cannot add to what President Shevardnadze has just stated.

Q: I would like to ask the secretary and the president what is the role of U.S. Customs and the U.S. Coast Guard with regard to the security of the border of Georgia, and what would be the reasons for this cooperation?

Secretary Cohen: With respect to the level of cooperation that we have, we have provided a patrol craft to help secure some of the border areas as far as the sea is concerned. We are in the process of delivering some six operational helicopters by the end of next year, as well as an additional four helicopters that will be used for spare parts--that in conjunction with some of the training that has taken place through the so-called IMET program, the International Military Education and Training program, whereby military personnel from Georgia conduct, attend classes and other types of structural activities in order to reform their military capabilities. We have a number of programs underway that will help Georgia reform its military but also in ways that make it more capable as far as securing the integrity of its borders. So you have patrol craft as far as sea craft are concerned--patrol boats and helicopters would be our contribution to that effort.

President Shevardnadze: Without the U.S. assistance to the Georgian Border Guard, we would not be able to control our borders.

Q: Distinguished Mr. Secretary, today the president noted that you have touched upon the problem of Abkhazia. I'm interested to know how the United States sees its role in resolving the conflict in Abkhazia.

Secretary Cohen: Well, the United States, again, indicates that it supports not only the independence of Georgia, its sovereignty, and its territorial integrity. With respect to the conflict in Abkhazia, we believe that that must be resolved peacefully, and we continue to encourage its peaceful resolution and hope that that can be achieved. There is, of course, a U.N. observer group, and we hope that that can be helpful and a productive force for seeking a peaceful resolution. But this is an issue that must be resolved by Georgia.

Q: The United States is a NATO member state. Does your visit mean that NATO is increasingly interested in the region of the Caucasus?

Secretary Cohen: As I indicated before, Georgia plays a very active role in the Partnership for Peace program and in the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, and NATO does look to Georgia as a country that has made a successful transformation to democracy and is in the process of opening its markets and generating a market economy, and NATO looks at that with great favor. With respect to the future, of course, it's up to individual countries who might seek membership into NATO that that door remains open to all, but, as I've indicated on many occasions, the door stands at the very top of a steep set of stairs, so countries who wish to seek membership in NATO must develop their countries in ways that qualify them--their militaries--and that is something that Georgia will have to decide sometime in the future. But right now, NATO engages in the Partnership for Peace program. It's very important, and Georgia is playing an important role in that program.

Q: The assistance and support the United States is providing to Georgia is equally important to all citizens of Georgia, irrespective of their nationality and equally important to Armenians, Jews. As a Jew, I would like to express my gratitude for the assistance the United States is providing to Georgia. I would like to ask one question. The U.S. government supports the new government and new policies of Israel and supports the idea of solving the conflict situation in the Middle East through peaceful means [by giving away land in order to establish peace (omitted by interpreter)]. Georgia is trying to resolve the conflict in Abkhazia by peaceful means. Might not such statements to resolve the conflict through peaceful means give more freedom to destructive forces and [their ability to] generate more problems? What do you think about this?

Secretary Cohen: The United States is interested in promoting peace and stability, freedom and opportunity and democracy. To the extent that we can serve as a force for the promotion of these ideals, we are eager and willing to do so. What I've tried to indicate, yes, we have played a constructive role in trying to bring about a peaceful settlement in the Middle East, just as we believe we are playing a constructive role in helping to promote democracy, freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and stability here in Georgia. Those are the ideals that we share. That is one of the reasons we have such a positive and constructive relationship with the people of Georgia. Again, I take this opportunity to commend President Shevardnadze for his leadership and his courage and his vision for the future. He has dedicated himself to reforming the way in which the government and the economy and the military have acted in the past and shaping it to be a force for all the mutual ideals that we share for the future. And that is the reason I wanted to come here today, to express my admiration for him, my encouragement, and whatever support our government can provide.