- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 4, 2008

TBILISI, Georgia | President Bush on Wednesday announced a $1 billion economic aid package to Georgia to help the pro-Western former Soviet republic in the wake of Russia’s invasion.

In Azerbaijan, Vice President Dick Cheney said the United States has a “deep and abiding interest” in the region’s stability. It was the first stop on a tour of three former Soviet republics that are wary of Russia’s intentions after its war with Georgia last month.

“Georgia has a strong economic foundation and leaders with an impressive record of reform,” President Bush said in a statement announcing the aid package. “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 multiyear U.S. aid proposal calls for spending about half of the money in the Bush administration’s remaining five months in office and recommending that the incoming president keep funding the project when he takes over in January, a senior U.S. official said.

The aid package follows an assessment mission to Georgia by Reuben Jeffrey, a senior U.S. diplomat, the official said.

Mr. Jeffrey has recommended that assistance be rushed to Georgia to help rebuild its economy and infrastructure that was destroyed by Russian tanks, troops and air strikes, according to the official.

Mr. Cheney, due in Georgia on Thursday, planned to make the massive aid package a major highlight of his discussions with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice simultaneously announced the aid package at the State Department.

Also in tandem with Mr. Bush, the International Monetary Fund announced it has agreed to lend Georgia $750 million for economic recovery.

Russia was watching Mr. Cheney’s trip with suspicion, and a top Russian security official accused the vice president of an ulterior motive: seeking to secure energy supplies in the South Caucasus in exchange for U.S. support.

In Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, Mr. Cheney met with U.S. Embassy officials and international oil executives before going to President Ilham Aliev’s residence on the Caspian Sea.

Mr. Cheney said the principle of territorial integrity was endangered today, noting that they were meeting “in the shadow of the Russian invasion of Georgia.”

The Russian consul in Georgia, meanwhile, said Russia closed its embassy there and has halted consular operations after Georgia severed diplomatic ties following last month’s war.

The diplomatic suspension means no new applications for Russian entry visas will be accepted, a blow to Georgians who have relatives in Russia or other ties there. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Georgians live in Russia, many with Russian citizenship.

The diplomatic break follows a war between Georgia and Russia in August and Moscow’s recognition of two separatist Georgia regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as independent nations. Nicaragua on Wednesday became one of the first countries to recognize the two nations.

The United States has already sent two military ships bearing aid to Georgia, and the USS Mount Whitney - the flagship of the Navy’s 6th Fleet - steamed through the Dardanelles early Wednesday and was expected to pass through the Bosporus later in the day. The two Turkish-controlled straits link the Mediterranean to the Black Sea.

One of the other U.S. ships, the USS McFaul, sailed back through the straits toward the Mediterranean late Monday.

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