BRUSSELS -- NATO Secretary-General Anders Rasmussen told Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in Brussels today that the promise of eventual membership for Georgia in NATO made in April 2008 still stands.
"NATO's policy toward Georgia has not changed. We will continue to support Georgia in its Euro-Atlantic aspirations," Rasmussen said.
Along with Ukraine, Georgia has aspired to NATO membership for years. Rasmussen said the brakes that new Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych appears to have applied to his country's NATO aspirations will not affect Georgia's progress.
He said both countries can join as soon as they meet the relevant conditions -- which include approval by all of NATO's allies -- assuming they still want to.
At the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008, NATO leaders decided not to put Georgia on a direct path to accession and did not grant it a Membership Action Plan.
They did, however, adopt a declaration saying that Georgia and Ukraine were guaranteed eventual membership.
Saakashvili today said Georgia's path toward NATO membership is "irreversible" and won't be affected by Tbilisi's lack of control over the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Saakashvili said he was optimistic that Georgia would join the alliance sooner than expected, but wouldn't speculate on specific dates.
"We think there [were] cases where, you know, countries were divided and then became members of NATO,” Saakashvili said. “I hope this division will be overcome before then and I think the whole thing will happen much earlier than any of us can imagine."
The Georgian leader also drew attention to Georgia's contribution to NATO's mission in Afghanistan, where it has deployed some 1,000 soldiers and trainers.
"We are committed to Afghanistan. We are the biggest per capita contributor to ISAF,” Saakashvili said. “We are not only sending troops there -- and as you know, we have a small professional army and it's quite a luxury to send a thousand or so troops, without any caveats, to the most sensitive and difficult areas in Afghanistan.”
He continued: “I have to underline that people going there understand clearly what kind of responsibility and risks they're taking. And I think Georgian society overall has been behind that decision."
Meanwhile, NATO plans to stick with its policy of supporting Georgia in its standoff with Russia in words, if not in deeds.
In January, NATO increased its cooperation with Russia to prewar levels at a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council.
But Rasmussen said the alliance refuses to accept the outcome of the 2008 war, which saw Abkhazia and South Ossetia secede from Georgia.
"NATO is fully committed to Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Rasmussen said. “Our allies stick to their policy of nonrecognition of the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions of Georgia."
The NATO chief also said Russia must abide by the August 12, 2008, cease-fire agreement, which among other things requires Moscow to withdraw its troops to preconflict positions.
In a reflection of U.S. President Barack Obama's “reset” policy, Rasmussen has made deeper engagement of Moscow one of his top priorities as NATO secretary-general.