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Kerry urges Georgia to sign EU deal


U.S. Secretary of State Kerry speaks with Georgia's PM Garibashvili at the State Department in Washington. Photo - Reuters

Washington: With an eye on the political upheaval in Ukraine, US Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday urged Georgia to push forward on its plans to move closer to the European Union.

At the start of bilateral talks between the United States and Georgia, the top US diplomat told Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili that Washington was also unveiling new funding to help Tbilisi integrate with Europe.

The US supported "Georgia's participation in the EU's Eastern Partnership, and we encourage Georgia to sign an association agreement with the EU later this year," Kerry said ahead of a meeting at the State Department.

It was anger over Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych's decision to tear up plans for a similar accord with the EU which triggered months of protests in Kiev, leading to the president's ouster.

"We don't make that urging for the signing of an association as some sort of zero - sum game between the East and West, or between us or any other party," Kerry insisted.

"We simply want people to be able to exercise their freedom of choice and be able to maximize their economic opportunities."

He also stressed that the US stood by Nato's decision to admit Georgia as a member of the military alliance, and said Washington would provide more aid to help the country "achieve visa-free travel with the EU and to mitigate the hardships caused by borderization along the occupied territories."

Georgia is one of six former Soviet states on Europe's eastern flank to be offered an EU agreement that includes a major free trade deal.

But Brussels in the last months saw Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus as well as Ukraine turn back to Moscow after being told what they stood to lose if they made the wrong choice.

Garibashvili said Georgia was very grateful for Washington's support as it moves towards the EU and Nato.

"Your support provides a powerful stimulus to our resolve to persist in the often uphill but honorable task of strengthening democracy, especially in our challenging region and especially when more than 20 per cent of Georgia territory remains under Russian occupation," he told Kerry.

Georgia and Russia went to war in August 2008 over the breakaway territory of South Ossetia, which along with Abkhazia split from Tbilisi after the USSR crumbled in 1991.

Following the 2008 conflict, Russia recognised both separatist regions as independent countries and stationed thousands of troops there, in what Tbilisi considers a de facto occupation.

Garibashvili also welcomed negotiations for a free-trade agreement between the US and Georgia.

Georgia had an "exceptionally advantageous location and potential to turn into the gateway linking Europe with lucrative Chinese markets through the Caspian Sea and the Central Asia regions," he added.

Kerry added that he was also planning to try to visit Georgia in the coming months.

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