Georgia shelves claim for place in Europe

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The Independent Online

The former Soviet republic of Georgia has put on hold all thoughts of an early application to join the European Union and is concentrating its foreign policy efforts on joining Nato.

The country's Prime Minister, Zurab Nogaideli, said Georgia sensed an "enlargement fatigue" in the EU and felt discussing EU membership at present was "counterproductive". It hoped, however, to be included in the next phase of Nato enlargement.

Mr Nogaideli was speaking in London yesterday, halfway through a week's visit to Britain, which has included meetings at Downing Street, the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and with business leaders. One week is an unusually long time for a prime minister to spend visiting any one country and reflects what Georgia sees as Britain's pivotal position in Nato and the EU, and as a commercial centre.

Georgia, whose peaceful "rose revolution" in 2003 brought the westward-orientated Mikhail Saakashvili to power, has been pursuing a determinedly pro-Western policy focused on opening the country's economy to the outside world and the accelerated introduction of democratic reforms. Georgian officials also take every opportunity to stress the country's European credentials, initially making no secret of their ambition to join the EU.

As Mr Nogaideli made clear yesterday, however, Georgia now accepted that there was no prospect of EU membership in the foreseeable future. This, he said, was the message Georgia had taken from the "no" votes in France and the Netherlands on the European constitution. Unlike Ukraine, which still clings to the hope of early EU membership, Georgia has decided to focus on fulfilling the requirements of the EU's "action plan" under its neighbourhood policy. This, he said, should strengthen Georgia's claim in future.

Georgia does appear, however, to have been promised entry to Nato, if not next year, then soon thereafter. The thinking appears to be that Georgia's strategic position in the Caucasus, at the junction of Europe and the Arab world, would strengthen Nato's south-eastern flank. Mr Nogaideli stressed that membership had not been made conditional on a resolution of disputes with Russia. Such a condition might give Russia an incentive to prolong the disputes.

Talks with what Georgia's Prime Minister referred to as the "de facto leaders" of South Ossetia, a region adjoining Russia that has claimed independence from Georgia, are under way and, according to Mr Nogaideli, would have made more progress had Russia not tried to interfere. Georgia is moving to offer South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another pro-Russian enclave, enhanced autonomy.