TBILISI (AFP) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday assured Georgia would join NATO as she strongly backed the ex-Soviet republic's President Mikheil Saakashvili in his conflict with Russia.
"Georgia will become a member of NATO if it wants to -- and it does want to," she told reporters before talks with Saakashvili in Tbilisi.
It was one of the strongest statements yet of support for Georgia's NATO membership bid, which is fiercely opposed by Russia.
"We are on a clear road towards NATO membership (for Georgia)," she added at a later news conference.
On August 12, German Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung had said the conflict in the Caucusus had changed nothing with regard to Georgia's chances of joining the NATO military alliance.
At the last NATO summit in Bucharest in April, leaders agreed that Georgia and Ukraine should join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization eventually, but neither nation was given candidate status and no timetables were set.
The United States is strongly in favour of Georgia joining NATO, but misgivings from France and Germany prevented Tbilisi being awarded full candidate status in Bucharest.
Merkel was in Tbilisi to support Saakashvili and press for the withdrawal of Russian troops who attacked Georgia on August 8 to repulse an offensive by Georgian troops against a Moscow-backed separatist region, South Ossetia.
Standing side-by-side with Saakashvili at the news conference, Merkel declared that the "withdrawal of Russian troops is the most urgent task."
"I am looking forward to the speedy withdrawal of Russian troops, which has not yet happened as we had expected."
She was the latest world leader to visit Georgia -- which has repeatedly appealed for Western support -- after trips by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the last week.
She said she had come to Tbilisi "to show that we support the Georgian people and also the government to deal with the work there is to do."
Merkel on Friday held talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who later in a frosty news conference stated that Moscow was "the guarantor of security" in the Caucasus region.
Meanwhile, Merkel also attempted to reassure Georgia about Russia's right under a ceasefire agreed earlier this week to take "additional security measures" outside the South Ossetia conflict zone.
This phrasing -- the most contentious issue in the EU-brokered six point ceasefire deal -- has raised fears in Tbilisi that Russia could maintain a long term troop presence deep inside the country.
"The security zone is temporary. This is not disputed by any of the parties," said Merkel.
She urged the rapid deployment of monitors from the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
"It is more important that foreign observers arrive so it is not only troops of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)," she added, referring to the post-Soviet international body dominated by Russia.
Saakashvili angrily dismissed suggestions from some Russian military officials that their forces could stay on as "peacekeepers" to patrol the security zone.
"There is no such notion any more in Georgia as Russian peacekeepers. There can be no Russian peacekeepers -- these are just Russian forces," he said.
Employing his customary mix of rhetoric and emotion, Saakashvili added: "We will defend our capital whatever it takes."
Russian troops on Sunday remained deployed in the north and west of the country, including units within half an hour's drive of Tbilisi.
Russia says that regular forces will begin withdrawing Monday but that an unspecified number of Russian peacekeepers will remain.
Moscow is furious at Georgia's attempt to join NATO. The Western military alliance is divided over how fast to accept Georgia, but has indicated that membership is a matter of when, not if.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in an interview with weekly Welt am Sonntag, warned on Sunday against any "knee-jerk" reaction in relations with Russia, such as suspending EU cooperation talks.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »