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Georgian President urges "compromise" on NATO membership

The Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili, has urged Nato members to bury their differences and agree to a "compromise" that would accelerate his country's membership of the Western military alliance, despite the fallout from Georgia's six-day war with Russia.

On the eve of this week's Nato foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels, Mr Saakashvili appeared to be expecting them to drop any reference to a formal road-map towards membership known as the Membership Action Plan (MAP).

The ministers are to review the membership prospects for Georgia and Ukraine after withholding the promise of MAP at a summit last April in the face of fierce Russian opposition but holding out prospects of eventual Nato membership.

"Membership is the goal," President Saakashvili said during a teleconference call from Tbilisi. "How to get there is secondary." The Georgian leader believes that the diplomatic fudge at the Nato summit emboldened Moscow to retaliate with crushing force by invading Georgia proper when the Georgian military launched an offensive against the breakaway territory of South Ossetia last August. "

The last time in Bucharest, Nato sent the worst signal because they were disunited," he said. "The worst thing now is to send an emboldening signal to Moscow. If there is another sign of weakness, there would be the same spiral as last time." France, Germany and Italy were among those to line up against the United States, Britain and former members of the Soviet bloc now in Nato which were pressing for MAP to be granted to Georgia at the last summit.

Opponents of the move argued that relations with Moscow were too important to sacrifice over Georgia and Ukraine and said the two nations were not ready for membership. Mr Saakashvili noted that the "sceptics" in the 26-nation alliance were still sticking to their position, particularly Germany.

There have been indications that the US and Britain have begun lobbying to bypass the formal application process which includes requirements ranging from military reform to the establishment of full transparency over command structures. Mr Saakashvili said such leaks were not helpful because they only highlighted the divisions within Nato.

"Hopefully, there will be a compromise in which we can move towards membership," he said.

The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, is due in London today for talks tomorrow with the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, after speaking of a face-saving British compromise. "There is a British idea ... that we look at different ways to fulfill the terms of the Bucharest declaration," Ms Rice told reporters last week, referring to the Nato promise to both countries of eventual membership.

She noted that MAP was not the only way to prepare for Nato membership, and that Turkey, Poland and the Czech republic had joined without being granted MAP. A Foreign Office spokesman refused to give details on the possible compromise that would keep both countries' hopes alive, but noted that Britain supports "putting in place a programme of support and reform that brings Georgia and Ukraine closer to Nato and takes forward the decision in Bucharest that they will eventually become members".

Ukraine and Georgia already have access to increased dialogue and activities, for example, via the Nato-Georgia Commission and the Nato-Ukraine Commission. But in Ukraine, public opinion is bitterly divided over Nato membership, particularly in the light of the Georgia war, and the issue was partly responsible for the collapse of the government last September.

A senior diplomat argued that unlike the negotiations to join the European Union, where stringent economic and political criteria have to be met, joining Nato is a "political" decision, and should therefore be simpler if the political will is there. The diplomat said that joining Nato was an attractive option because "it is the best, most efficient security arrangement in modern history".