NATO chief expresses solidarity for Georgia

Georgia Materials 16 September 2008 13:11 (UTC +04:00)

NATO's chief assured Georgia on Tuesday that the alliance stands by the beleaguered nation after its war with Russia and supports its drive to join Western institutions, reported CNN.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer met with Georgia's parliament speaker in the second day of a visit that comes with thousands of Russian troops on its soil more than a month after a war that has caused mounting confrontation between Moscow and the West.

De Hoop Scheffer said he and the NATO ambassadors of all 26 allies were in the ex-Soviet republic "to show solidarity with its people, to show that we stand by them as they work to reshape their country and take their proper place in the European and Euro-Atlantic community."

But they have made no promises about when Georgia might join NATO.

Wary of vehement Russian opposition, the alliance declined in April to take a key step toward membership for Georgia but assured the pro-Western government it would eventually join. Now Georgia's membership bid is clouded by Russian control over two separatist regions.

De Hoop Scheffer said it was "fitting" to be meeting in Georgia's colonnaded parliament building, the hub of the peaceful Rose Revolution protests in 2003 that ushered President Mikhail Saakashvili to power and set the country firmly on a pro-Western path.

The parliament speaker, Saakashvili ally David Bakradze, said that while the government party faces vehement opposition, the country is united in the desire to join NATO and integrate with the West.

The war has damaged Saakashvili's standing on Georgia's turbulent political stage, with Georgians questioning the wisdom of Georgia's August 7 offensive targeting separatist South Ossetia. Saakashvili claims Georgia was responding to Russian aggression.

Russian tanks, troops and warplanes repelled the Georgian attack on its South Ossetian allies and drove deep into Georgia in a five-day war that killed hundreds of people and displaced nearly 200,000.

On Monday, de Hoop Scheffer and Georgia's prime minister signed documents creating new NATO-Georgia Commission conceived in the wake of the war to emphasize alliance support for Georgia and oversee further relations.

The NATO leader also condemned Russia's use of "disproportional force" and emphasized NATO's demand that Moscow withdraw to positions its forces held before the fighting erupted, complying with a cease-fire deal brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Under a supplemental agreement Sarkozy reached last week, Russia has pledged to withdraw its forces from Georgian territory outside South Ossetia and anther separatist region, Abkhazia, within 10 days of the deployment of EU monitors expected to be in place by Oct. 1.

But Moscow has said it will maintain nearly 8,000 troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia for the foreseeable future. The U.S. and European Union say that would flagrantly violate the commitment to withdraw to pre-conflict positions.

The unresolved status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia has always given alliance members pause about accepting Georgia. The persistent Russian presence adds to questions about how to handle the membership aspirations of a country with large chunks of territory beyond its control.

Russia has adamantly opposed NATO membership for Georgia, whose location straddling a key westward energy route for Central Asian oil and gas supplies gives it outsize geopolitical importance.

Georgia has emerged as a major focus of a struggle for influence pitting a resurgent Russia against the United States and the EU amid relations that have become increasingly frayed over the past decade.