US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Georgia's leaders Tuesday to strengthen their democracy by ensuring that upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections are "free and fair".
Clinton also reaffirmed US support for the territorial integrity of the former Soviet republic that is a strong US ally, calling on Russia to pull back its forces from Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
She delivered her message in meetings with Prime Minister Nika Gilauri and representatives of the country's opposition parties after arriving in the Black Sea port city of Batumi late Monday from Armenia as part of her European tour.
President Mikheil Saakashvili is facing a strong political challenge from billionaire tycoon turned opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvilli, with parliamentary elections to be held in autumn and presidential polls next year.
"We urge Georgia's leaders to ensure it will be a competitive campaign and that elections are free and fair both on election day and in the weeks and months running up to it," Clinton said at a session with Georgian and US officials.
"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," she added ahead of a meeting with the pro-US, pro-NATO Saakashvili.
She said the United States "remains steadfast in our support for Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity."
"We reject Russia's occupation and militarisation of Georgia's territory and we call upon Russia to fulfill its obligations under the 2008 ceasefire resolution including the withdrawal of its forces to pre-conflict positions, and free access for humanitarian assistance," she said.
After Georgia and Russia fought a war in 2008, Moscow recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent and permanently stationed troops there.
The Georgian prime minister expressed gratitude for Washington's backing.
"Now that 20 percent of Georgia is occupied by its northern neighbour, Tbilisi is convinced that the international community will not spare any effort to help restore justice peacefully," Gilauri said.
Clinton said the United States would continue to help Georgia modernise its military and upgrade its capabilities to defend itself and operate with NATO forces.
She presided over the commissioning of a refurbished Soviet-era Coast Guard patrol boat, redesignated the P-109, that was gutted and re-equipped to US and NATO specifications with US funds.
The US plans to provide Georgia with two refurbished US Coast Guard cutters and is building a ship repair depot to maintain a growing fleet of patrol boats.
It also has provided communications and observation equipment, a high-tech maritime information centre and radiation detectors deployed at border points.
"All of this is part of our broader effort to help Georgia secure your borders and defend your sovereignty," she said at the commissioning ceremony.
A primary US objective is to prevent smuggling of nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union, made more difficult by the absence of controls in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Besides nuclear materials, US officials worry the breakaway provinces could be used to smuggle weapons to Syria or to extremist groups in the Black Sea region.