Shevardnadze Says Georgia to Join NATO

TBILISI (Reuters)–Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said on Thursday his former Soviet republic was now openly seeking membership of NATO and that he had asked alliance chief Javier Solana to speed up the process.

Tbilisi has long sought closer ties with NATO–and Shevardnadze has been alone among leaders of the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States grouping 12 former republics to fully support its bombing of Yugoslavia.

But the 71-year old former Soviet foreign minister has never before openly stated that alliance membership is an eventual foreign policy goal for his Caucasus country of 5.6 million and his words are sure to rile its big northern neighbour Russia.

"When I met with Javier Solana–I asked him: ‘When will you finally admit Georgia to NATO?’ He whispered his answer in my ear–but I can’t reveal what he told me," Shevardnadze told a news conference. He was referring to a meeting between himself and Solana earlier this week in Washington.

"For this–time is needed. But possibly this will happen sooner than we assume," he added.

Georgia shares a long northern border with Russia–has several Russian military bases on its territory and many Russian officials consider Georgia a part of Moscow’s strategic underbelly.

Many analysts see Shevardnadze’s courtship of NATO as linked to hopes that the organisation might one day help Georgia solve its continuing problems with separatists in the breakaway Abkhazia region.

Abkhazians have refused to accept autonomy within Georgia–holding out instead for full independence–and refuse to let more than 150,000 ethnic Georgians return to the region in–defiance of UN Security Council resolutions.

After returning from Washington on Wednesday–where he attended 50th anniversary celebrations for the alliance–Shevardnadze voiced full support for its bombing of Yugoslavia–saying "ethnic cleansing" and "genocide" could not be tolerated as the world moves into the 21st century.

"After the end of the Cold War we cannot allow genocide and ethnic cleansing–either in Kosovo–Albania or Abkhazia–and diplomacy which is not backed by real power can exist only on the level of phrases and declarations," Shevardnadze said. He admitted that full membership might be a long way off but said he wanted to strengthen ties in the meantime.

"We consider necessary deepened cooperation with NATO–but before we enter this organisation we have a long road to travel," he said.

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