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Georgia: Shevardnadze Says His Country Might Choose Neutrality

Prague, 6 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze hinted yesterday that NATO membership may not be a top priority for his country and that Georgia may instead opt for neutrality.

Speaking to reporters in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, Shevardnadze said Georgia might declare itself a neutral country by 2005.

For the past five years, Shevardnadze has consistently maintained that his country would be "knocking on NATO's door in 2005." But yesterday he said that it is "too early" to speak with certainty of Georgia's accession to the 19-nation alliance.

Shevardnadze said "the people will decide."

Gia Nodiya is the Director of the Tbilisi-based Caucasian Institute for Democracy and Development. He tells RFE/RL that opinion polls show the idea of neutrality is gaining ground among the Georgian population.

Nodiya also says that opposition parties such as Mkhedrioni, a small formation led by former warlord Dzhaba Ioseliani, also favor neutrality for Georgia.

"It would appear that other opposition parties could pick up this idea and it could be an attempt on [Shevardnadze's] part to prevent this. That is, it looks as if [Shevardnadze] wanted to signal that he is not against [neutrality]."

Russia has always opposed NATO's eastward expansion. Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned the alliance not to upset international relations by advancing too far into what he described as Russia's sphere of influence.

Georgia has participated in NATO's Partnership for Peace program since 1994 and regularly joins in NATO military maneuvers held in the region.

Georgia is also a member of GUUAM, an economic forum that includes Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova.

Russia has always regarded GUUAM as an attempt to undermine the CIS. It has also accused GUUAM member states of devoting too much attention to military and defense issues.

Georgia, which has long depended on Russia for its energy supplies, is now participating in a billion dollar pipeline project to ship crude oil produced by U.S. companies from Azerbaijan to Turkey. Russia sees the project as a threat to its economic interests and as an attempt to squeeze it out of a region it considers as its backyard.

Relations between Russia and Georgia have substantially worsened in the past few months.

In December, Moscow decided to introduce a visa requirement for most Georgian citizens travelling to Russia.

The move -- which does not apply to residents in Georgia's separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- is ostensibly aimed at preventing Chechen rebels Moscow says are hiding in Georgia from crossing the border. But analysts say the decision could be part of a much wider political campaign to force Shevardnadze into a more compliant policy toward Russia.

Georgia has repeatedly called for all Russian soldiers to leave the country, but Moscow still maintains four military bases in Georgia. Most Russian troops have already withdrawn from the Gudauta and Vaziani bases, but negotiations over the Akhankalaki and Batumi bases have only recently begun.

Russia would like to keep the Gudauta base and turn it into a recreation center for its soldiers. Moscow only reluctantly agreed to withdraw troops from Gudauta and Vaziani after Georgia announced last year that it no longer would share its military quotas with Russia under the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe disarmament treaty.

Nodiya believes Shevardnazde's hint at Georgia's neutrality could be aimed at reassuring Russia over the fate of the two remaining bases.

"Russia's pressure on Georgia is certainly playing a role here. During talks on the withdrawal of the [Russian] base in Akhankalaki, the Russian side said it feared that, as it happened in Germany, NATO troops would go in when they leave. This is what [Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya] Klebanov reportedly said. Maybe these things are linked to each other. As if [Shevardnadze] wanted to indicate to Russia that, if its troops withdraw [from Georgia], it does not mean that NATO troops will enter immediately."

NATO officials have always said Georgia's joining the alliance would be a prolonged process.

In an interview published 3 February in Georgia's Russian-language newspaper "Svobodnaya Gruziya," Zbigniew Brzezinski -- former security adviser to U.S. President Jimmy Carter -- commented on Georgia's possible entry into NATO. Brzezinski said that, should Georgia decide to apply for membership by 2005, the alliance's doors will remain open. But he warned that the admission process could be long.

Meanwhile, Georgia continues strengthening its ties with NATO members and with countries aiming at NATO membership.

Last week, Shevardnadze made a breakthrough visit to Turkey during which he signed defense cooperation agreements. Speaking yesterday on national radio, the Georgian president hailed the "strategic partnership" that he said now exists between Tbilisi and Ankara.

Georgian Defense Minister David Tevzadze yesterday began a two-day visit to Ukraine -- an active participant in NATO's Partnership for Peace program -- aimed at revitalizing military cooperation between Tbilisi and Kyiv.

Lithuania's ELTA news agency reports that Tevzadze will visit Vilnius later today to sign a cooperation treaty with his Lithuanian counterpart, Linas Linkevicius.