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20 Jul, 2009 19:41

Georgian aspirations for NATO “almost dead” – Saakashvili

Georgia’s plans to become a member of NATO, which seemed almost assured two years ago, are now “almost dead”, President Mikhail Saakashvili admitted in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

"It's tragic," the newspaper quotes him as saying. "It means the Russians fought for the right reasons."

The pro-western Georgian leader made eventual NATO accession an important part of his policy and received aid to reform the country’s armed forced to the alliance’s standards.

Georgia was expected to be given NATO’s Membership Action Plan during the summit in Bucharest in April 2008, but fell short of it. Tbilisi’s unsettled conflicts with the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia were among the biggest stumbling blocks.

However, Georgia was thrown back on its path to join NATO after its attack on South Ossetia in August 2008, and the subsequent intervention by Russian forces. Russia maintained a peacekeeping mission in the region and was quick to respond when advancing Georgian troops attacked Ossetian civilians and Russian soldiers stationed in the area. Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia had their claims for independence supported by Moscow after the war.

The conflict between Georgia and Russia and the international reaction to it plunged Moscow’s relations with the west to the lowest for decades. It took months of investigation and diplomatic effort for the work of the Russia-NATO council to be resumed.

Domestically, the disastrous military campaign cost Saakashvili’s government dearly. Many of his allies turned into opposition, accusing the Georgian president of taking authoritarian measures and adopting failed policies. The capital, Tbilisi, has seen mass protests for months, although the authorities seem adamant in rejecting their demands for Saakashvili to resign.

Saakashvili’s comments to the Wall Street Journal come ahead of the visit by US Vice President Joe Biden, who is to arrive this Wednesday. Some analysts suggest that policymakers in Georgia are frightened that the goal to “reset” relations between Russia and America, heightened during President Obama’s visit to Moscow earlier this month, may undermine Washington’s support of its allies, the newspaper notes. Biden’s visit is meant to boost morale and many want him to send "back off" signals to Moscow.

“Mistake and untrue”

Later on Monday, Georgia’s Foreign Ministry stated that Saakashvili’s interview was wrongfully interpreted.

“What the Georgian President really said was that if Russia achieves blocking Georgia’s accession into NATO – that would be a tragedy. The statements attributed to Saakashvili are a mistake and untrue,” Deputy Foreign Minister Giga Bokeria said.

Saakashvili himself claimed that the Wall Street Journal Europe had distorted his words and had already apologized for doing so.

Meanwhile, in the early hours of Tuesday, the outgoing NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer declared that Ukraine and Georgia are not ready to join the Alliance at the moment, and he doesn’t see the situation changing in the foreseeable future.