Well, thank you very much, and it is a great pleasure being here on the 20th year anniversary of our diplomatic relations. And I appreciate greatly Georgia hosting this third meeting of the U.S.-Georgia Strategic Partnership Commission. I thank you, prime minister, foreign minister, our ambassadors, our assistant secretary, and the distinguished representatives from both Georgia and the United States who are here for this important gathering.
When I was here two years ago, I said my first trip to Georgia would not be my last. And I am very happy to have returned and to have a chance to be here to see Georgia’s beautiful Black Sea coast for the first time and to learn more about the continuing efforts for development, as evidenced around us here in Batumi.
The U.S. delegation present today represents the breadth of our partnership, because our nations cooperate across a range of issues that shape our people’s lives, from strengthening regional and global security to increasing trade and economic ties, to helping the people of Georgia fulfill your democratic aspirations. We share common goals and common interests, and our people share common values.
In 2009 we launched this Strategic Partnership Commission to take the U.S.-Georgia partnership to the next level. We wanted to have more results to show for our work together and to deliver more benefits to our citizens. Our gatherings since then have helped us identify key goals and what is needed to achieve them. Let me briefly review four priorities of this strategic partnership and the steps that lie ahead.
First, regarding Georgia’s work to strengthen your democracy, you have taken important steps since the Rose Revolution and your progress has been noted worldwide. Now it is up to Georgia to consolidate your democratic gains. That is the key to Georgia’s future, and it will bring Georgia closer to achieving your Euro-Atlantic aspirations. The parliamentary elections this fall and the presidential election next year are an opportunity for Georgia to deepen its democracy and strengthen the legitimacy of Georgia’s democratic institutions in the eyes of your public and of the world. We urge Georgia’s leaders to ensure that it will be a competitive campaign and that elections are free and fair both on election day and in the months running up to it. The recent creation of an interagency task force to handle election-related grievances is a good step.
I also want to applaud the parliament for creating incentives to get more women into politics. Georgia’s government and the country as a whole will be stronger when women have a greater voice and a greater role in helping to shape Georgia’s future. And I urge al the people of Georgia to remember, though you did make history with the Rose Revolution, the more difficult and ultimately the more important work may well be ahead, the work of building the habits and practices that sustain democracy over time. That means not only holding successful elections but also going beyond elections and strengthening the other key pillars of democracy, such as labor rights, judicial independence, media independence and access.
These reforms will have impacts well beyond the political realm, especially with regard to Georgia’s economy, because these reforms will also help foster economic growth. And that’s the second issue I want to mention. Georgia’s reforms, including your economic reforms, have won international praise and rising standings in global business rankings. As Georgia continues to strengthen accountability, transparency, and the rule of law, you will see even greater interest and investment in your economy. The United States is proud to have been Georgia’s partner in this critical period. Now we want to take our trade and investment relationship to the next level.
Last week in Washington, officials from our countries fulfilled our two presidents’ pledges from last January to launch a high-level dialogue to strengthen our trade relationship, including the possibility of a free trade agreement, an updated investment agreement, and other measures that could facilitate trade and investment. We want to help Georgia expand economic opportunity for all Georgians, especially for women, minorities, and others who are often left out of economic progress.
To that end, I was pleased to learn that the Regional Women’s Entrepreneurship Conference in Istanbul last year gave a push for the creation of an active women’s business network here in Georgia. That’s a smart way to foster sustainable growth, and we want to help Georgia find innovative ways to ensure that women and residents of minority regions can share inclusively in Georgia’s development.
The third issue is regional and global security. Georgia and the United States already have strong bilateral defense cooperation, and in their meeting in January, President Saakashvili and President Obama pledged to deepen that cooperation even further in three areas: furnishing comprehensive assistance to support Georgia’s continued defense reform and modernization; providing the training and equipment necessary for Georgian troops to effectively participate in ISAF operations in Afghanistan; and improving Georgia’s self-defense capabilities and NATO interoperability. And this afternoon I will be announcing steps the United States will take to support these three goals.
Georgia already helps protect regional and global security and together we can do more. As we said at the NATO summit in Chicago two weeks ago, we are grateful for Georgia’s contributions and sacrifices as the largest non-NATO contributor now to the ISAF mission in Afghanistan. And we agreed that Georgia continues to make important progress toward meeting NATO’s standards. We continue to strongly support Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations and stand by the Bucharest decision and all subsequent decisions on Georgia.
Fourth and finally, among our greatest sources of strength are the bonds between our people. We need to forge even more of them so our people will fully embrace and carry forward the world of building a strong Georgia-U.S. relationship. So the United States has taken steps to make it easier for Georgians from across the country to travel to America. Through our Embassy in Tbilisi, we help thousands of teachers and students learn English and study in the United States. And this afternoon I will be announcing steps to make it easier for the residents of the separatist regions to visit the United States.
We see this as a step toward achieving a peaceful and just resolution to the conflicts within Georgia, a goal that remains a priority for the United States. Constructive steps like this can reduce tensions, create trust, build trade links, and normalize contacts. And all of this can help transform the situation over time. And while we work to rebuild people-to-people connections frayed by the conflicts of the past, the United States remains steadfast in our support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. We reject Russia’s occupation and militarization of Georgian territory, and we call on Russia to fulfill its obligations under the 2008 ceasefire agreement, including withdrawal of its forces to pre-conflict positions and free access for humanitarian assistance.
So this year marking the 20th anniversary of our diplomatic relations permits us to look back on all that Georgia has achieved in these past years and all the progress our two countries have achieved together. We have many reasons to be optimistic about what the future holds. And let us remember who we are working for. We are working for the people of our countries and the generations that will follow, whose futures will be shaped by the security, prosperity, freedom, and peace that we work together to build today.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)