- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2008

President Bush yesterday said he will push for the republic of Georgia to be admitted to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization at the group’s summit in Romania next month, after meeting with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili at the White House.

“I believe that NATO benefits with a Georgian membership. I believe Georgia benefits from being a part of NATO. And I told the president it’s a message I’ll be taking to Bucharest soon,” Mr. Bush said.

Georgia’s aspirations will be decided at the Bucharest summit,” he said.

Mr. Saakashvili was ecstatic at the president’s support for the former Soviet territory.

“We’ve heard today everything we wanted to hear from the leader of the free world, and I think that’s going to give new opportunities opening to my people. I’m bringing back hope and inspiration,” said the 40-year-old U.S.-educated leader.

Georgia’s entry into the 26-nation NATO body is strongly opposed by Russia, but it is one of several former communist bloc countries aligning itself with the West instead of Russia.

Albania, Croatia and Macedonia have all begun the NATO entrance process known as the membership action plan (MAP), which primes them to join the military alliance by reviewing the quality of their democratic institutions and their level of military readiness.

Georgia and Ukraine are both hoping to begin the MAP process at the biennial NATO summit in Bucharest April 2-4. Georgia’s hope for admittance to the MAP process looks slim because of German opposition.

The two top issues at the summit will be NATO expansion and NATO’s mission in Afghanistan. With respect to the latter, several European countries have balked at sending their troops to the most dangerous areas in the south and east, near the Pakistani border.

Senior U.S. government officials have called on Europeans to do more in Afghanistan, and have said that if NATO cannot rise to the challenge there, the alliance may have lost legitimacy. The European Union has been forming its own military forces in the past few years and has become something of a competitor to NATO.

NATO grew out of the 1949 Warsaw Pact as European countries and the U.S. formed a joint military force with an eye toward countering the Soviet Union and promised to defend one another in the event of an attack.

Besides Russia’s opposition to Georgia’s joining NATO, Mr. Saakashvili faces some questions about his crackdown on an opposition rally in November. He declared a state of emergency and scheduled an early presidential election in January, which he won.

Russia, in the wake of Kosovo’s declaration of independence last month from Serbia, has supported two regions in Georgia — Abkhazia and South Ossetia — that want to break away and align themselves with Russia.

Mr. Bush said he and Mr. Saakashvili “talked about the need for there to be peaceful resolutions of conflicts, while recognizing the territorial integrity and sovereign borders of Georgia.”