TBILISI -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said during a visit to Tbilisi that Georgia should be classified a "safe country" of origin, a move that would make it more difficult for its citizens to seek asylum in Germany.
Merkel on August 23 said Germany had seen an increase in the number of Georgians applying for asylum in the country since the European Union in March 2017 liberalized visa rules for the South Caucasus nation, although the numbers have begun to slow in recent months.
"Georgia is definitely a safe country," she said during a joint news conference with Georgian Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze as part of a three-day tour of the region that will also take her to Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Declaring Georgia a safe country of origin would make it easier for authorities to turn back Georgians seeking asylum to their home nation.
Bakhtadze said his government would continue to assist Berlin in further reducing the number of asylum seekers to Germany and reiterated his country’s desire to eventually join the European Union and NATO.
"We have made our contribution to the formation of European values…but we have no illusions. We still have a lot to do," he said.
“Proceeding from here, we certainly believe that Georgia will definitely become a member of the EU and NATO," Bakhtadze added.
Merkel said Germany would support Georgia’s efforts to someday join the two blocs, although she said Georgia was not currently an active candidate.
Russia has vehemently opposed any membership by the former Soviet republic in NATO, with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warning earlier this month that Georgia’s joining the Western military alliance could lead to a "horrible" new conflict.
Georgia, a country of some 3.7 million people, fought a brief war with Russia 10 years ago, and Moscow’s continued military presence in the Caucasus country’s territory adds to tensions in the region.
After the war, Russia left thousands of troops in Georgia’s breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and recognized both as independent countries.
Merkel criticized the continued Russian military presence in Georgia, saying that "during my last visit to Georgia 10 years ago, I demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops."
"Of course, I am [still] standing by Georgia's territorial integrity," she added.
The German leader will travel to Armenia on August 24, then move on to Azerbaijan the following day.
Her office said she will encourage efforts to reach "a peaceful and consensual solution" to the two countries' long-running territorial conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Nagorno-Karabakh, populated mainly by ethnic Armenians, declared independence from Azerbaijan amid a 1988-94 war that claimed an estimated 30,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
Since 1994, it has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces that Baku says include troops supplied by Armenia, and international efforts to mediate the dispute have failed.