AP National Security Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama offered encouragement Monday for the former Soviet republic of Georgia's hopes for a preferential trade agreement with the United States, but said the country has a way to go in its economic reforms.
Obama praised visiting Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili and said there is a "possibility" of a free trade agreement that is a top priority for Georgia. Obama said the U.S. will help Georgia strengthen its free market system with high-level dialogue, but did not address when or under what conditions that might expand.
Saakashvili thanked Obama for the possible free trade agreement.
"That's going to attract lots of additional activity to my country," he said.
Later, in a meeting with reporters he said that the White House meeting and Obama's words had great symbolic importance for his country. Though Georgia has recovered in many ways from its 2008 war with Russia, it still suffers from tensions with its much larger neighbor and looks to the United States for support.
Georgia's leverage in asking for trade advantages grew last year, when it quietly dropped objections to Russian membership in the World Trade Organization. Georgia is probably the most hostile toward Moscow of the now-independent nations that were once part of the Soviet Union.
Russian WTO membership was part of Obama's efforts to repair relations with Russia that hit a low point following the Russian invasion of Georgia over a territorial dispute.
Saakashvili told reporters that the Obama administration's so-called reset with Russia had not come at Georgia's expense.
"We have no reason to complain, and today's meeting clearly proved that," he said.
He said and that he believed the improved relations between Washington and Moscow had deterred further Russian aggression.
Sitting with Saakashvili following an Oval Office meeting, Obama said the two discussed the importance of protecting minorities and the rule of law, an apparent reference to alleged political power plays by Saakashvili's party and the recent arrest of journalists and others on allegations of spying for Georgia's rival Russia. But Obama praised Georgia as an example of democracy in the former Soviet region.
Obama said scheduled democratic elections, in which Saakashvili intends to step aside, "will solidify many of the reforms that are taking place."
Critics have accused Saakashvili of trying to engineer constitutional reforms that would allow him to pull strings from offstage, in the manner of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, after he leaves office in 2013. Saakashvili denies it.
Obama appeared to make an oblique reference to that debate by saying that he was "anticipating fair and free elections" and "the formal transfer of power" in Georgia.
Saakashvili, who has been president since 2004, has sought to steer Georgia toward joining the European Union and NATO. He has been credited with economic and anti-corruption reforms, but opponents have accused him of stifling media freedom and sidelining the opposition, and criticized his handling of the disastrous 2008 war with Russia.
Obama did not mention that war, or the underlying dispute, during brief remarks to reporters following Monday's meeting.
Earlier, however, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama would reaffirm U.S. support for Georgia's "territorial integrity" within internationally recognized borders. That's a reference to the dispute over a breakaway region of Georgia that prompted the war.
Obama said the two leaders discussed security issues, and he thanked Saakashvili for Georgia's contribution of troops to the war in Afghanistan.
Saakashvili said that Obama pledged to intensify security cooperation and help Georgia improve its self-defense capabilities.
Georgia is looking to Obama for a road map to NATO membership, something Russia opposes.
Saakashvili said that he expected that Georgia would see progress toward membership at NATO's summit in Chicago in May.
Associated Press writer Desmond Butler contributed to this report.
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