WASHINGTON (AP) — Georgia's new foreign minister is reassuring the United States that it remains her country's most important ally.
A day after meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Maia Panjikidze also brushed off U.S. concerns about arrests of allies of President Mikhail Saakashvili, whose party lost in October's parliamentary elections.
The U.S. is watching the new Georgian government for signs of drift from the West following the elections. The new prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, assumed much of the government's powers. He quickly pledged to improve relations with Russia and crack down on abuse of power by the former government.
Several officials have already been arrested. On Thursday, Clinton expressed concern about the arrests but also received Panjikidze warmly and praised the country for a peaceful transition of power. Panjikidze said in an interview with The Associated Press that she and Clinton had discussed the arrests. She said she did not take Clinton's warning as strong criticism, and she told Clinton that "it's just about the restoration of justice, and everything will be done according to the rule of law."
She said Georgia was willing to invite international observers to monitor the justice process. Georgian foreign policy will remain largely the same as it was under Saakashvili's government, Panjikidze said, though the government will try to ease tensions with Russia. The country, which fought a war with Russia in 2008 and does not have diplomatic relations with Moscow, appointed a representative of the new government on Russian issues.
But Panjikidze said that diplomatic relations won't be restored until Russia ends its occupation of two breakaway Georgian provinces that Moscow recognizes as independent. She said that Russia has barely responded to the Georgian efforts to mend ties.
"After Ivanishvili announced the appointment of the special representative, the reaction from Moscow was very strange," she said. Moscow has said it is waiting for Georgia to take further steps but has not elaborated on what it wants.
Panjikidze also said that gaining NATO membership would remain a top priority for Georgia. It's not clear how Georgia can mend relations with Russia as it pursues that goal, which Moscow has stridently opposed.
She added that reaching a free trade agreement with the U.S. would be a high priority and that Georgia plans to maintain its large contingent of troops serving in NATO's mission in Afghanistan.