Setback for Georgia after Nato rejection

Georgia's hopes of joining Nato were dealt a blow last night, when Western European countries blocked a bid to offer it a path to membership.

In a move bitterly contested by Condoleezza Rice, Nato's 26 foreign ministers pledged to deepen ties with Georgia and Ukraine, but refused to set them on the formal road to joining the trans-Atlantic club.

The outgoing US Secretary of State had hoped to end her last visit to Brussels on a high note by granting Georgia a Membership Action Plan (MAP), which has been seen as the final stepping-stone toward joining the alliance.

But her European colleagues feared that such a step would antagonise Russia. They argued that neither Kiev nor Tbilisi were ready and should instead first embark on a long process of reform. "Both countries have made progress but both still have significant work to do," said Nato's secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. "Any membership decision will depend on future progress."

Half a dozen European countries led by Germany and Italy pushed to resume "informal" ties with Russia, despite concerns that Moscow is still flouting a ceasefire deal that ended its war with Georgia. Washington had insisted that it was no longer possible to have "business as usual" between Moscow and Nato after the August conflict. "We must now look for ways of returning to dialogue with Russia because it is during especially difficult phases... that we need to hold discussions," said the German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

The measures are a major disappointment for Tbilisi. "It will be hard to explain this to our people back home," Georgia's Foreign Minister, Ekaterine Tkeshelashvili, said. The Prime Minister, Grigol Mgaloblishvili, added: "MAP has taken on such huge symbolism in Georgia that I have even met people who have named their children Map. But of course, we do realise that what matters most is that we are on a steady road to membership."