NATO backs Georgia but no firm invitation to join

A050464212.jpgTBILISI (Reuters) – NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer condemned Russia’s military action against Georgia but shied away from making any commitment to the ex-Soviet state on when it will be invited to join the military alliance.

In Brussels, the European Commission announced 500 million euros ($700 million) over two years in aid to help Georgia rebuild after its brief war with Russia last month, and EU foreign ministers rubber-stamped the deployment of at least 200 EU ceasefire monitors to Georgia.

De Hoop Scheffer was in Tbilisi to underscore NATO support for Georgia after a five-day war in which Russia drew Western condemnation by sending in troops to crush a Georgian attempt to retake the rebel South Ossetia region.

But he made no mention of whether Georgia will be given a Membership Action Plan — a roadmap for accession — when NATO meets for a summit in December. Alliance members are split over the wisdom of admitting Georgia in the near future.

“Russia’s use of force was disproportionate and Russia must now comply with all elements of the six-point plan brokered by French President Sarkozy,” de Hoop Scheffer said, referring to a ceasefire agreement France brokered on behalf of the EU.

“At the same time, despite the difficult situation, we expect Georgia to firmly stay the course of democracy and reform,” the NATO chief told a meeting of ambassadors of the 26 NATO countries in a Tbilisi hotel.

“Dedication to these fundamental values remains essential for Georgia on its path to Euro-Atlantic integration.”

REBEL REGION

Signaling Russia’s weight in the region, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday met separatist officials in South Ossetia, one of two Georgian regions Moscow has recognized as independent states.

De Hoop Scheffer and NATO ambassadors were in Tbilisi for the inaugural session of the NATO-Georgia Commission, conceived in the aftermath of the conflict to bolster ties with Tbilisi.

“Today indeed is a milestone in the history of the NATO-Georgia relationship,” de Hoop Scheffer said after signing a document on the creation of the commission.

But the meeting is unlikely to bridge differences between members states about whether to go beyond a vague commitment issued this year that Georgia and fellow ex-Soviet state Ukraine will eventually be admitted.

Some members are wary of antagonizing Russia and have qualms about Georgia’s conduct in the conflict and its democratic credentials.

U.S. ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker, whose country has been the strongest supporter of Georgia’s membership bid, was cautious on when Tbilisi would get a firm invitation to join.

“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 that will be taken later,” Volker told reporters.

MARKET JITTERS

Moscow has said it was morally obliged to take military action to prevent a genocide against the separatists by a Georgian government it said was egged on by the United States.

Russia last week agreed to pull hundreds of soldiers from ‘security zones’ inside undisputed Georgian territory within a month. But Moscow plans to station around 7,600 troops – more than twice the pre-war levels – in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Russian financial markets and the rouble have fallen sharply since the war. The fall is driven largely by global economic turmoil but also by investor concerns that Medvedev’s liberal economic program is being eclipsed by Kremlin hawks.

Addressing Russian business leaders in the Kremlin, Medvedev said that would not happen. “We do not need militarization of the economy or a statist economy,” he said. “No one should count on a change in direction.”

Russia’s intervention in Georgia drew no direct sanctions — in part because for many Western states Russia is the main supplier of oil and gas.

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