NATO and Georgia: A ‘milestone’ summit
European Union foreign ministers also approve sending ceasefire observers to Russian-occupied parts of Georgia.
Tbilisi -- NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer began a two-day visit to Tbilisi on Monday he described as further "strengthening and deepening" Georgia's ties to the alliance.
During the visit, the NATO secretary general also tagged Moscow as the aggressor in Russia's war with Georgia last month.
In a glaring juxtaposition, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in the separatist capital of South Ossetia, the tiny strip of land that was the prize of the five-day conflict last month.
Scheffer and Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze signed a series of documents at the first session of the Georgia-NATO Commission that both sides called a "milestone on the chosen path of Georgia and the Euro-Atlantic alliance."
Gurgenidze touted the NATO visit as "a clear sign and message of solidarity and support, another such sign ... in a partnership, which we believe and hope one day will bring us ever closer to the alliance."
President Mikheil Saakashvili said Scheffer's visit should "enhance and accelerate" Georgia's drive for membership, describing the visit as a signal to the world that already firm and strong relations between Georgia and the alliance would further be strengthened.
Arriving in Georgia, Scheffer slammed Russia's role in the conflict.
"NATO's position has been clear from the very first: Russia used disproportionate force against Georgia," he said, urging Moscow to stick to the terms of a ceasefire agreement.
But in comments to the Financial Times just hours before his visit, Scheffer attacked oversights in the EU-brokered peace deal, saying it allowed for the "unacceptable" ongoing presence of Russian troops in Georgia's breakaway regions.
"If the Russians are staying in South Ossetia with so many forces, I do not consider this as a return to the status quo," Scheffer told the British newspaper. "The option of keeping Russian forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia is not acceptable."
A day after signing a peace accord last week, Moscow said near 8,000 troops would stay in the separatists, where its peacekeepers patrolled under a UN mandate before the conflict.
A decision, Scheffer said, was "difficult to swallow."
The object of the two-day Georgia trip by ambassadors from the 26 NATO-member states will be ongoing talks -- insistently backed by the United States -- on extending Georgia alliance membership.
Despite the urgency placed in Georgia's accession talks by anger and fear over Russia's actions in the recent conflict, NATO members are far from decided on further expansion into the former Soviet territory.
Western Europe -- Germany, France, Spain and Italy -- want to delay adding Georgia and Ukraine under its security umbrella fearing a nightmare scenario in which alliance troops could face off with Russian forces in Eastern Europe.
Russia and NATO froze relations last month, and Scheffer, who has been particular critical of the Kremlin over the conflict, said "a speedy revival of the NATO-Russia Council will not be easy, I think."
At the same time, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s tour of Georgia's separatist region of Abkhazia and South Ossetia marked the rift with the West since Russia unilaterally recognized both provinces claims to independence.
Lavrov slammed Scheffer's politics, speaking in the Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi on Sunday.
"Of course I've heard the declarations he makes, declarations that are inappropriate for the leader of such a serious organization," he was quoted by news agency Interfax as saying.
In Brussels, European Union foreign ministers on Monday approved sending ceasefire observers to Russian-occupied parts of Georgia.
But crucial questions remained about the mandate and many in Europe have been feeling burned by the rushed peace treaty negotiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country holds the EU rotating presidency.
Vagueness in the accord has allowed Moscow to say it provides only for the 200-strong EU mission to deploy in "buffer zones," effectively giving the EU observers a role of safeguarding the boundaries of Georgia's separatists.
Those regions are part of Georgian territory, the EU says, but an agreement to tackle the status of the regions in peace talks was also dropped by Moscow in the latest pact that provides for peace talks in Geneva next month.