NATO envoys head to Georgia to show support

Posted in NATO | 15-Sep-08 | Author: Judy Dempsey| Source: International Herald Tribune

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, right, and NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, left, are seen during a NATO meeting in Tbilisi, Georgia.

BERLIN: Defying strong opposition from Russia, NATO's 26 ambassadors will begin a two-day visit to Georgia on Monday in a move aimed at showing support for the Georgian government, despite the risk of increasing tensions between the U.S.-led military alliance and the Kremlin.

The aim of the visit - led by NATO's secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, and including meetings with President Mikheil Saakashvili, senior government officials, the opposition and nongovernmental organizations - is for alliance envoys to assess more than just the damage caused in the brief war last month with Russian forces. They will also use the visit to see whether foreign ministers from the NATO member states will offer Georgia the Membership Action Plan, which sets in motion formal negotiations to join the alliance, when they meet in December.

"We want to show our support for Georgia after what we have seen from the Russian side," de Hoop Scheffer, a former Dutch foreign minister, said during a visit to Latvia last week. "We have our fundamental differences with the Russian Federation. We had them already before they were embarking on disproportionate force in Georgia. But we do not consider Russia a threat."

Russia sent troops and tanks deep into Georgia last month after Georgian forces attacked the breakaway enclave of South Ossetia.

President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia warned last week that Georgia's and Ukraine's membership would be a destabilizing factor for the Western alliance and in the volatile Caucasus region.

But NATO is far from united over extending such an offer.

Several countries, including the United States, Poland and the Baltic states, are lobbying hard so that Ukraine and Georgia are given something concrete in December. Vice President Dick Cheney made it a point of promising NATO membership to Georgia and substantial financial assistance when he was in the country's capital, Tbilisi, earlier this month.

Apart from their concerns about a more assertive Russia in the region, these governments believe that NATO membership would strengthen their democracies and boost the security of the region.

"Spreading democracy and stabilizing democracies is a peace-enhancing activity," Foreign Minister Radek Sikorksi of Poland said in an interview. "We believe Ukraine and Poland have the same right to choose the way they want to conduct their security policy."

But other member countries, notably Germany, France, Spain and Italy, want to postpone offering Ukraine and Georgia the Membership Action Plan. Apart from their qualms over further enlargement, they fear that it could upset Russia, with unpredictable implications for the alliance.

Indeed, Germany is worried about possibly being dragged into a war in the Caucasus if NATO had to intervene in a conflict involving Georgia or Ukraine.

Aware of the tightrope he is walking, de Hoop Scheffer and NATO foreign ministers agreed last month to develop a NATO-Georgia Commission, which will involve military training; the re-establishment of Georgia's air traffic system, which was bombed during the war; and assisting the Georgian government in understanding the nature of cyber attacks.