NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Monday reiterated the bloc’s commitment to grant former Soviet republic Georgia eventual membership despite Moscow’s fierce opposition.
Stoltenberg was in the Georgian capital Tbilisi to attend 12-day joint NATO-Georgia military exercises that kicked off last week.
“The 29 allies have clearly stated that Georgia will become a member of NATO,” Stoltenberg told a news conference alongside the country’s Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze.
“We will continue working together to prepare for Georgia’s NATO membership.”
In an apparent reference to Russia, he said that no country had the right to influence NATO’s open-door policy.
“We are not accepting that Russia — or any other power — can decide what (NATO) members can do,” he said.
At a 2008 summit in Romania, NATO leaders said Georgia would join the bloc at an unspecified future date but have so far refused to put the country on a formal path to membership.
The prospect of Georgia joining NATO is seen by the Kremlin as a Western incursion into its traditional sphere of influence.
Bakhtadze said for his part that Moscow had no right to prevent a sovereign country from choosing “its security arrangements”.
“NATO membership is the choice of the Georgian people and is enshrined in our constitution,” he said.
Held at the Krtsanisi Georgia-NATO Joint Training and Evaluation Centre outside Tbilisi, the joint drills involve 350 servicemen from the US, Britain, France, Germany and 17 other allied nations as well as Azerbaijan, Finland, and Sweden.
Tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow over Georgia’s pro-Western trajectory and control of the Black Sea nation’s breakaway regions led to a brief but bloody war in 2008.
During the conflict over Moscow-backed separatist regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia routed Georgia’s small military in just five days and recognized the independence of the breakaway territories.
Moscow then stationed military bases there in what the West and Tbilisi have denounced as an “illegal military occupation.”
Last year, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Georgia’s eventual NATO entry “could provoke a terrible conflict”.