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16 Sep, 2008 16:59

NATO envoys promise stronger ties with Georgia

NATO has pledged support for Georgia's bid to join the alliance despite Moscow’s concerns. On the second day of his visit to Tbilisi, NATO's Secretary General visited the national parliament but failed to attend a schedu

Ambassadors of the 26 NATO nations have come to Tbilisi to oversee the setting up of a NATO-Georgia Commission. But Mikhail Saakashvili is no doubt disappointed as the delegation stopped short of actually committing itself to Georgia’s future membership, although Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer assured Tbilisi that NATO stands by it. Nevertheless, he made no promises.

“The North Atlantic Council is visiting Georgia to show our solidarity with the people of Georgia, to show that we stand by them as they attempt to reshape their country and take their rightful place in the European and Euro-Atlantic community,” said de Hoop Scheffer.

Tbilisi will have to wait until December to see if last month’s war with Russia has brought it any benefits.

“The thrust or the direction of NATO's thinking is clear. We stand with Georgia, we want to be helpful. The actual decision on whether December is the time for the membership action plan or not is something to be taken later and in the interim we are creating this NATO-Georgia Commission and we are going to be working through a lot of efforts to try to see how we can build a closer relationship and provide more assistance,” said Kurt Volker, the U.S. Ambassador to NATO.

NATO’s chief and the Georgian Prime Minister, Lado Gurgenidze, signed agreements outlining the framework for the commission. Its purpose will be to hold in-depth discussions on regional security and to help bolster Georgia-NATO relations.

These developments are likely to make Moscow even more uneasy on the subject of NATO expansion, as it considers that further alliance enlargement would destabilise the region. Moscow has warned that these meetings will only encourage Georgia to carry out further military operations.

At a news conference, de Hoop Scheffer was asked whether Georgia’s chances of joining NATO will be damaged if the crisis in the Caucasus isn’t resolved.

“That's the well-known 'iffy' question and in a long career, a long political career, I have learnt that it is better not to react to 'iffy' questions,” said the NATO chief.

“NATO, it goes without saying, strongly supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia,” he added.

De Hoop Scheffer spoke at Tbilisi State University on Tuesday morning, and said that the venue was fitting as it was the hub of Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution, which brought the current president to power.

At the same time, the NATO chief said it was not the alliance’s intention to punish Russia.

“NATO will continue, as I said, to stand by Georgia, but neither will we close our door to Russia. That would not be the right thing to do, nor would it be in our interest,” said de Hoop Scheffer.

De Hoop Scheffer did not meet opposition leaders as the meeting was scheduled.

Georgian opposition politicians have urged Saakashvili to step down and call early elections. They accuse the leader of dragging the country into a violent conflict which could have been avoided.

The former speaker of the Georgian Parliament, Nino Burdzhanadze, has backed a call for a thorough investigation into the cause of the war and whether or not the Georgian authorities could have prevented the bloodshed that followed.