Russia tensions make Nato wary of Georgia bid

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Media captionGeorgia's President Saakashvili still seeks Nato membership

Nato has embraced many former Soviet bloc countries but Georgia remains for now just a partner because of its 2008 war with Russia.

Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is visiting Georgia, whose West-leaning government wants to join the alliance and move away from Russia's sphere of influence.

But just how realistic are Georgia's chances of ever becoming a Nato member?

Georgia's 2008 war over the breakaway territory of South Ossetia made Nato wary of taking on a new member that might drag it into a future conflict with Russia.

Today Russian troops still occupy 20% of Georgia's territory, says Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili - a situation he describes as "political stalemate".

"It might get worse before it gets better, obviously. But eventually it will get better and we hope to survive as a country until that moment," he told the BBC.

Since the war, Russia and Georgia have had no diplomatic relations. And Mr Saakashvili and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin get on badly - with Mr Putin famously saying he would like Mr Saakashvili hung by his private parts.

So the prospect of Mr Putin holding onto power in Russia, as he looks set to become president next year, does not bode well for Georgia.

Border dispute

But it is Russia's support for the breakaway territories in Georgia - Abkhazia and South Ossetia - that makes Nato membership anytime soon unlikely, Georgian political analyst Paata Zakareishvili says.

"Unless Georgia decides to give up Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which is not going to happen, then it means the country is planning to enter Nato with disputed borders.

"There's also the problem of the Russian military bases in these regions. I don't see Russia leaving in the next 10 to 15 years. The process of solving these problems hasn't even started."

But the head of Georgia's National Security Council, Giga Bokeria, says Russia should not be allowed to control Georgia's foreign policy choices.

"I think it would be extremely dangerous if any country, and in this case the Russian Federation, were allowed to stall the development of another country, Georgia in this case, with the aggressive policies they have pursued. That would mean they have a de facto veto on Nato enlargement."

This month has however seen one rare sign of agreement between Georgia and Russia.

Moscow's bid to join the World Trade Organization was facing a possible veto from Georgia, a WTO member. Tbilisi wanted international trade monitors to be let into South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Now a Swiss-mediated compromise has been agreed. The deal means that third-party observers can monitor the frontiers of the territories, but not actually enter them.

The agreement has been welcomed by the US, a strong supporter of Moscow's WTO bid.

Human rights concerns

Image caption Tbilisi: For centuries Georgia has been a focus of big-power rivalry

But the West is also monitoring Georgia's domestic political scene. Human rights groups accuse Mr Saakashvili's ruling party of stamping out political opposition, saying that the courts and media are not sufficiently independent of the government.

Mr Saakashvili denies that his administration monopolises power. He points to how the country has been transformed: petty corruption wiped out and crime rates slashed.

"These are amazing benchmarks for a country that was struggling even to survive on the map. It was a failed state just seven or eight years ago, totally run by criminals," he said.

But with Nato membership dependent on lasting democratic reforms, next year's parliamentary elections will be watched closely.

And in 2013 the next test for Georgia will come: Mr Saakashvili will have to step down, when his term in office ends.

Since coming to power, after leading the dramatic Rose Revolution in 2003, he has been the charismatic and powerful face of the government. Today it is hard to imagine the country without him running things.

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