Georgia president backs NATO engagement with Russia

19th November 2010, Comments 0 comments

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said Friday he had told US President Barack Obama that he backed NATO engagement with Russia, hoping it would lead to better relations.

US ally Georgia fought a five-day war with Russia in August 2008 when Russian troops poured into the country after fighting broke out between Georgian and separatist forces in South Ossetia.

Obama and his allies in the 28-nation NATO will hold a summit with Russia on Saturday as they seek support from their former Cold War foe for a Europe-wide anti-missile shield.

"I told him that we supported it and we hoped that NATO one day would also result in Russia being more civilized towards its neighbours," Saakashvili told AFP by telephone after his first one-on-one meeting with Obama.

US officials have repeatedly voiced support for Georgia's territorial integrity after the 2008 war.

Following the conflict, Russia recognized South Ossetia and a second breakaway Georgian region called Abkhazia as independent states, a move that has been followed by only a handful of countries.

Infuriating Saakashvili, Russia has since established permanent military bases and deployed hundreds of troops and border guards in the region.

The Georgian leader said 30 percent of his country's territory is still occupied, while there are half a million refugees and displaced people resulting from Russia's actions.

"On the other hand, the way to resolve it is through peaceful dialogue. This peaceful dialogue can also be part of the dialogue that Russia has with NATO and the United States," Saakashvili said.

"There is no other option for us," he added.

"We don't want to turn our country into a battlefield."

Saakashvili said Obama had expressed support for Georgia's territorial integrity and for its aspirations to join NATO.

"We did not expect to get any concrete timeline at this time but I think President Obama was supportive of our NATO aspirations," the Georgian leader said.

NATO leaders agreed at a 2008 summit in the Romanian capital that Georgia and Ukraine would eventually become members of the alliance, but -- under pressure from European leaders wary of alienating Russia -- denied the two countries coveted pre-membership status.

Saakashvili enjoyed extremely close ties with former US president George W. Bush, who famously declared the country a "beacon of liberty" in a 2005 speech to thousands of cheering Georgians in central Tbilisi.

Georgia, which declared independence in April 1991, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, has even named a main road from the airport after Bush.

Relations between the United States and Georgia cooled under Obama, however, after Saakashvili's international reputation was damaged by a 2007 crackdown on opposition protesters and by his handling of the war with Russia the following year.

© 2010 AFP

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