NATO leaders visit Georgia in gesture of support

Georgia Materials 15 September 2008 04:08 (UTC +04:00)

NATO envoys visit Georgia on Monday in a gesture of support for the aspiring alliance member after its defeat by Russian troops last month, reported Reuters.

In Brussels, European Union foreign ministers will seek to maintain pressure on Russia to withdraw its troops from Georgia by rubber-stamping plans to send at least 200 ceasefire monitors next month in line with a ceasefire deal.

Russia's intervention in Georgia drew widespread international condemnation, and deepened concern over the stability of the wider Caucasus as a transit route for oil and gas from the Caspian Sea to the West, bypassing Russia.

But Western states have shied away from sanctions on Moscow, in part because for many Russia is the main energy supplier.

Tbilisi sees the first session of the NATO-Georgia Commission as a fresh commitment to its future membership, but it is likely only to paper over cracks between NATO members over the wisdom of expanding further into the former Soviet Union.

Russia is incensed by NATO's promise of membership to neighboring Georgia and Ukraine. Some western European countries led by France and Germany are wary of antagonizing Moscow over the issue.

"This meeting represents a strengthening and deepening of relations between Georgia and NATO," Georgian Euro-Integration Minister Georgy Baramidze told Reuters on Sunday.

"It's a very serious signal and a response to Russia's aggression against Georgia," he said.

The Commission was conceived after the Russian intervention as a means to bolster ties with Tbilisi.

The NATO meeting coincides with a trip by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two breakaway Georgian regions which Moscow, in defiance of the West, has recognized as independent states.

In Abkhazia's capital, Sukhumi, Lavrov accused NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer of making "inappropriate and not very responsible" statements on the conflict in Georgia.

De Hoop Scheffer will lead the NATO delegation to Tbilisi.

Russian forces pushed deep into Georgia in August after repelling an offensive launched by pro-Western Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to retake breakaway South Ossetia from pro-Moscow separatists.

Some Russian forces pulled out from the region around Georgia's Black Sea port of Poti on Saturday, within a Sept 15 deadline for the first phase of a pullback brokered by France on behalf of the European Union.

But many more remain, holding 'security zones' around South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia. Moscow has agreed to withdraw them by October 10, but plans to station some 7,600 soldiers in the two separatist regions indefinitely.

The withdrawal of troops from the security zones is conditional on deployment of an international force of ceasefire monitors, including the 200-strong EU contingent.

Danish State Secretary Michael Zilmer-Johns said on Sunday that EU countries had been asked to provided batches of 20 monitors and that Denmark and Finland would do so jointly.

"It's not unrealistic to have the mission ready on October 1. At least the Danish-Finnish contingent will be ready before October 1," he said.