Georgia donors' conference opens in Brussels

Representatives from nearly 70 countries gathered in Brussels on Wednesday for a donors' conference designed to raise billions of dollars in aid to help Georgia recover from its August conflict with Russia.

According to a World Bank report, Georgia needs a total of 3.7 billion dollars (2.9 billion euros) in aid over the next three years. Of these, some 560 million dollars are already accounted for.

Much of the additional help is to be spent on rebuilding damaged roads, helping resettle scores of refugees and getting the economy back on track.

The European Union's executive arm, which is jointly hosting the conference with the World Bank, has already pledged up to 500 million euros in aid over a three-year period.

"We are here today to show our solidarity with the people of Georgia," said European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso at the start of the conference.

Noting that any conflict around Europe has "implications for the EU's security and stability", Barroso said EU nations had "a moral imperative" to help their neighbours in need.

Several pipelines carrying oil and gas from the Caspian region to Europe cross Georgia, whose projected economic growth for 2008 has been cut from 9 per cent to 3.5 per cent as a result of the conflict.

The EU's external affairs commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said poverty had been falling while the state of the country's public finances had been on the mend prior to the hostilities.

"The conflict has changed all that," Ferrero-Waldner said.

According to French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who helped broker a peace deal between Georgia and Russia on behalf of the presidency of the EU, providing financial aid to Georgia was Europe's way of addressing political problems.

But the EU is also trying to bring Georgia closer to Europe by providing visa facilities to its citizens and by trying to arrange a free-trade deal with the government.

Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze was attending the conference, but Russia was not invited.

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