NATO remains committed to admitting Georgia to its ranks, the head of the alliance said Friday, as the pro-Western former Soviet country suffered its greatest losses yet in Afghanistan.
Georgia, which fought a brief war with Russia in August 2008, has deployed around 1000 soldiers in Afghanistan as part of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s push to join NATO. Four died in combat operations on Thursday, the Defence Ministry said.
Georgia and another ex-Soviet state, Ukraine, were promised eventual NATO membership at a summit early in 2008, angering Russia. Since then the Obama administration has begun pursuing a “reset” policy on Russian relations, while the war between Russia and Georgia increased concerns in some European countries about letting Georgia into the alliance. Another NATO summit will take place next month.
“I would expect the NATO summit in Lisbon to reaffirm our position, which we took already in Bucharest in 2008, that Georgia will become a member of NATO once Georgia fulfills the necessary criteria,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at a joint press conference with Mr. Saakashvili. Earlier, in a televised speech to soldiers at the Defence Ministry, he offered condolences and thanked Georgia for sending troops.
“Georgian soldiers are serving in Helmand province—one of the most difficult areas in our mission in Afghanistan. I highly appreciate your dedication to our common security, which is a testimony of strong partnership between Georgia and NATO,” he said.
NATO membership conditions include requirements that potential members are functioning democracies with market economies that are committed to the peaceful resolution of conflicts.
Georgia’s economy has grown thanks to Western investment since Mr. Saakashvili came to power in 2003’s Rose Revolution, and it weathered the effects of the world financial crisis better than comparable countries. Summer-long street demonstrations calling for his resignation last year fizzled out without violence.
But Mr. Saakashvili drew criticism at home and abroad for using tear gas and rubber bullets at a 2007 demonstration that led to a snap election, and he has been accused of recklessly dragging Georgia into the 2008 war when it had no chance of defeating its much bigger and heavily armed northern neighbour. The war lost Georgia its two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Mr. Saakashvili said on Friday that NATO membership remained a top priority for his government. “It’s not just about NATO, it’s about Georgia being free, whole and independent,” he said.