WASHINGTON (AP) — The prime minister of Georgia vowed that his country would continue moving on a pro-Western course and pledged to hold an honest parliamentary election this fall.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Monday, Giorgi Kvirikashvili said that the future of this post-Soviet nation lies with the European Union and NATO.
"There is a very clear will of (the) Georgian people ... to be pro-Western, pro-European," Kvirikashvili told the AP.
Kvirikashvili was in Washington to meet with Vice President Joe Biden and other officials, as well as to promote Georgia as a regional hub for business and investment.
Kvirikashvili is a close ally of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in banking, mining and metals in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and whose party ousted the government of President Mikhail Saakashvili in 2012.
The new government has continued reforms aimed at economic, political and military integration with the West, signing a key trade and political agreement with Brussels and pushing for NATO membership. But it also sought to restore economic relations and ease tensions with Moscow after a five-day war with Russia in 2008 ended in two breakaway provinces declaring their independence from Georgia.
"This does not mean that we do not need to try to normalize relations with Russia, with our neighbor, but not at the expense of Georgia's territorial integrity and sovereign decisions," Kvirikashvili said. "The sovereign decision of (the) Georgian people is to be pro-European."
Kvirikashvili said the government is committed to holding a clean parliamentary vote in October, in which his Georgian Dream Party will have to battle falling support ratings and face off with Saakashvili's supporters and other parties. Saakashvili himself left Georgia in the face of corruption charges and is now serving as a regional governor in Ukraine.
"Our aim is to have one of the freest and fairest elections in the recent history of Georgia," he said.
Kvirikashvili sought to dismiss criticism that Ivanishvili, a reclusive tycoon who served as prime minister for a year until he stepped down in 2013, was still governing this small South Caucasus nation behind the scenes.
"Ivanishvili is (the) founder of the party Georgian Dream. He is an important person," Kvirikashvili said. "But in our major decisions, in our daily work, the government is absolutely independent."
Ivanishvili's name figured in the so-called Panama Papers revelations, a leak of millions of documents detailing the offshore accounts of people and companies. According to the investigation, Ivanishvili owned a company based in the British Virgin Islands, though it is unclear what the company was used for.
Kvirikashvili said the Georgian government needs additional information to look into this matter.
"Mr. Ivanishvili was always inclined to have transparent business and to comply with all the requirements of transparency," Kvirikashvili added.