NATO opens training centre in Georgia amid Russia tensions
NATO on Thursday opened a training centre in Georgia as the ex-Soviet country eyes closer partnership with the Western military alliance amid tensions with Russia.
Georgia has long sought full NATO membership and hopes to be invited to join a Membership Action Plan (MAP), a formal step towards membership, at a NATO summit in Warsaw next year.
But analysts doubt that NATO will grant the small South Caucasus country the membership plan in 2016 for fear of infuriating Russia amid tensions over Ukraine.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg sounded non-committal Thursday.
The establishment of the NATO-Georgian Joint Training and Evaluation Center, to be based just outside the capital Tbilisi, is aimed at buttressing the ex-Soviet country which fought a five-day war with Russia in 2008.
"There is more Georgia in NATO and more NATO in Georgia," Stoltenberg said at a news conference alongside Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili before the opening ceremony.
Stoltenberg, who arrived in Tbilisi on Wednesday, said that both Georgian and NATO troops would be trained at the centre.
"This centre will help Georgia to continue making its armed forces more modern and more capable of meeting 21st century challenges," Stoltenberg said at the opening ceremony in the Krtsanisi National Training Center outside Tbilisi.
"It will be equally important in training allied and partner troops," he said in the presence of Georgia's prime minister, president and top officials.
Prime Minister Garibashvili stressed for his part that the centre would increase regional stability and was not directed "against any neighbouring countries."
Predictably, Russia slammed the move as a provocation.
"We deem this step as the continuation of the alliance's provocative policies aimed at expanding its geopolitical influence," Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters.
- 'Georgia still on NATO agenda' -
Stoltenberg praised closer ties with Georgia but refused to make any promises when he was asked about Georgia's chances of getting the NATO membership plan at the Warsaw summit.
He said that he "cannot prejudge the conclusions and the decisions which are going to be taken at the NATO summit next year."
"What I can say is that Georgia already has the necessary tools to make progress towards membership," he said.
"I see that there is more work to do, but I am very inspired and encouraged by the progress we have seen."
"All the commitments we have made together are on track and on time and all these efforts help Georgia to move closer to your aspiration of NATO membership."
"NATO will continue to stand by Georgia," Stoltenberg said separately at a joint press conference with President Giorgi Margvelashvili.
Moscow's annexation of Crimea last year and the subsequent violence in eastern Ukraine have strained Russia's already tense relations with NATO, and each accuses the other of meddling in the affairs of the former Soviet countries.
"This high-level visit is very important," Sergi Kapanadze, the founder of Georgia's Reforms Associates think tank told AFP, referring to Stoltenberg's two-day mission.
"It indicates that Georgia is still on the international agenda, despite the grave situation in the region and despite the mixed messages regarding NATO," said Kapanadze, a former deputy foreign minister.
In August 2008, Georgia fought and lost a brief war with Russia over the Kremlin-backed separatist region of South Ossetia.
After that war, Moscow recognised South Ossetia -- along with the separatist region of Abkhazia -- as independent states and stationed thousands of troops in the regions that make up some 20 percent of Georgian territory.
© 2015 AFP