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Georgia: Shevardnadze Officially Requests Invitation To Join NATO

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze today officially requested that his country be invited to join NATO. The Georgian leader, in Prague for this week's alliance summit, said much work remains before his country is ready to join NATO, but he expressed confidence that Georgia will eventually make a strong candidate for entry.

Prague, 22 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, speaking today on the second and final day of the Prague NATO summit, officially requested that his country be invited to join the 53-year-old alliance.

Speaking to RFE/RL after the Georgian leader's announcement, presidential spokesman Kakha Imnadze said the following: "[President] Shevardnadze stated that Georgia is ready to enter NATO, that he is perfectly aware that it is not an easy process, that we need to undergo a serious preparation in the foreseeable future. He also said that the country will do everything so that Georgia becomes a member of NATO and to reach those standards that will really allow Georgia to become a fully fledged member of the alliance."

Georgian Security Council Secretary Tedo Japaridze said Shevardnadze met today with U.S. President George W. Bush, who expressed his support for Tbilisi's membership bid. Washington this year launched a $64 million program to modernize Georgia's armed forces and train them in antiterrorism tactics.

Shevardnadze, who in the past has said he expected his country to "knock at NATO's door" by 2005, this time avoided giving any indication of a possible admission time frame.

Speaking to journalists and students from NATO countries at RFE/RL's headquarters yesterday, the Georgian leader said he realized that it would take time before his country is invited to become a member of the alliance.

Addressing NATO leaders today, Shevardnadze said that, although Georgia's road toward the alliance will not be a short one, "it will not be as long as it seemed a few years ago," Georgia's Prime News quoted him as saying.

As the Georgian leader said yesterday, his country must first gain economic strength and restore its territorial integrity before it can reasonably expect to join NATO.

Shevardnadze was referring to unresolved conflicts in the separatist republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have been out of Tbilisi's control since the early 1990s.

Georgian officials believe the key to resolving the conflicts lies in Moscow's hands.

Russia actively supported both Abkhazia and South Ossetia during the active phase of the conflicts and later mediated between Tbilisi and its breakaway regions. Georgia has since accused Moscow of de facto annexing Abkhazia and South Ossetia by illegally granting Russian citizenship to residents in both regions.

Relations between Tbilisi and Moscow have further deteriorated in recent months after Russia threatened to launch military strikes on Chechen training camps allegedly located in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, a reportedly lawless area close to the Chechen border.

Georgia's Interior Ministry since then has proceeded to restore its authority in Pankisi, arresting several wanted criminals and alleged Chechen separatist fighters.

Although he did not directly allude to Russia in his remarks yesterday, Shevardnadze hinted that Georgia sees NATO membership as a guarantee against security threats from Moscow. "NATO membership means security for Georgia. It means that we will have final security guarantees. Throughout our history, we have seen a lot of hardship, and I think that today the only right decision is to become a member of NATO," Shevardnadze said.

Russia has not yet reacted to Georgia's decision to apply for NATO membership.

Another bone of contention between the two countries is the presence of two Russian military bases in Georgia, one in the predominantly ethnic Armenian region of Akhalkalaki and the other in Batumi, the capital of the southern autonomous republic of Adjaria.

In 1999, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, demanded that all Russian troops withdraw from Georgia as soon as possible.

Russia last year vacated two other military bases (Gudauta and Vaziani) and one military airfield (Marneuli) but has so far refused to agree on a time frame for the vacation of Akhalkalaki and Batumi.

Moscow insists that it may be another 10 years before it has either the money or the infrastructure necessary to complete its withdrawal from Georgia. Tbilisi says it wants both bases vacated within the next three years.

Yesterday, Shevardnadze said that Moscow must comply with the OSCE decision because "there is no other alternative." "If we take into account that decisions have been made by international organizations, that decisions regarding the withdrawal of the Russian military bases from Georgia have been made by the OSCE at the highest level, then these decisions must be fulfilled," Shevardnadze said.

In a more conciliatory tone, Shevardnadze said Georgia should be "realistic" in its demands and take Russia's financial concerns into consideration.

Talking to reporters today in Prague, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said he hoped Moscow and Tbilisi would reach a "mutually satisfactory" agreement on the issue.

Both capitals regard the Akhalkalaki and Batumi bases as a major obstacle to the signing of a new bilateral treaty designed to replace a similar pact signed in 1994 but never ratified by Moscow.

(Koba Liklikadze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report.)