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NATO agrees thaw with Russia, boosts ties with Georgia, Ukraine

by Staff Writers
Brussels (AFP) Dec 2, 2008
NATO agreed Tuesday to gradually resume high-level talks with Russia, frozen over the August conflict in the Caucasus, and to deepen ties with former Soviet states Georgia and Ukraine.

NATO foreign ministers decided on a return to informal meetings of the so-called NATO-Russia Council, despite concern that Moscow is not respecting a ceasefire that ended its brief war with Georgia.

"The allies agreed on a conditional and graduated re-engagement with Russia," NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told reporters at alliance headquarters in Brussels.

He said he was "mandated by the foreign ministers as I see fit, and of course if the other party would agree, to see what political contacts will be possible, can be possible."

He added that the NATO-Russia Council will meet on an informal basis "to re-engage and to have discussions on the issues on which we will agree and, I would also like to add, on the issues on which we disagree."

The informal meetings will take place at the level of ambassadors.

Russia's envoy to NATO cautiously welcomed the agreements, which had caused divisions within the alliance.

"We are looking on these decisions with cautious optimism. NATO has changed its position in regard to Russia, Ukraine and Georgia. The ice has started to melt," Ambassador Dmitry Rogozin told Russian radio.

NATO's European allies, led by France and Germany, are keen to repair contacts with Russia, which is a major supplier of European natural gas and oil, and is helping them fight international terrorism.

But the United States has remained wary of rewarding Moscow after its behaviour in Georgia, which is strongly backed by Washington.

"I don't think that this is in any way business as usual," warned US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, taking part in her last NATO meeting before a change in US administration on January 20.

"This isn't an issue of isolating Russia but it is an issue of what kinds of contacts are appropriate. I think this is a completely appropriate thing for the alliance to do," she said.

The council meetings were suspended in September, after the conflict between Russia and Georgia over breakaway South Ossetia, which Moscow has now recognised as independent along with another separatist region, Abkhazia.

But in a move that could yet anger Russia, the 26 NATO allies agreed to deepen cooperation with Georgia and Ukraine and strengthen two bodies in which their reforms directed at membership can be conducted.

"NATO will provide further assistance to both countries in implementing needed reforms as they progress, at least, towards NATO membership," Scheffer said.

"We are going to beef up the NATO-Ukraine Commission, beef up the NATO-Georgia Commission," he said. "NATO will maximise, strengthen, its advice and assistance for those reform efforts" in the two commissions.

He also insisted that Georgia and Ukraine "will one day become members, if they so wish."

Georgia and Ukraine had been striving to win membership action plan (MAP) status, which has in the last decade been the final stepping stone toward joining the world's biggest alliance.

But a bloc of around half a dozen European countries, led by Germany, believes that the two former Soviet states are not ready for such a step.

The United States has proposed that the two be allowed to continue to advance reforms through the respective NATO-Georgia and NATO-Ukraine Commissions, but Berlin insists that the MAP process be respected.

To join NATO, Georgia and Ukraine must complete political, democratic and military reforms, as well as have good relations with their neighbours. Their citizens should also be in favour of their candidacies.

Scheffer said that the decision to boost the two commissions would in no way "prejudice" the MAP process and whether that would have to be adhered to for the two hopefuls to join.

"MAP has not evaporated this afternoon," he underlined.

The question for Georgia -- and to a lesser extent Ukraine -- remains how to sell anything other than MAP to citizens who have come to identify the term as synonymous with their future in NATO.

Georgian Prime Minister Grigol Mgaloblishvili said Monday that he had met a man in the mountains of his country who had named his newborn son, Map.

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