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Russia's Medvedev presses NATO over expansion
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian president-elect Dmitry Medvedev maintained pressure on NATO on Tuesday not to grant membership to Ukraine and Georgia, saying a week before an alliance summit that it would undermine European security.
NATO leaders meeting in Bucharest from April 2-4 are expected to consider requests by the two former Soviet republics' pro-Western leaders to put their countries on the path to membership.
"We are not happy about the situation around Georgia and Ukraine," Medvedev told the Financial Times in an interview.
"We consider that it is extremely troublesome for the existing structure of European security. ... No state can be pleased about having representatives of a military bloc to which it does not belong coming close to its borders."
Ukraine and Georgia are lobbying NATO to grant them a Membership Action Plan (MAP), which is seen as the first step towards joining the alliance. Washington has said it backs their bid, but some NATO members in Europe are cool on the idea.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who opposes their accession bids, has accepted an invitation to go to the summit, which President George W. Bush will attend.
If he goes, Putin will be the first Russian president to attend a NATO summit for six years. But Russian political analysts say he may cancel the trip if it appears NATO members will use the summit to award MAP status to Georgia or Ukraine.
In Brussels, a spokesman for NATO said the alliance was aware of Russia's concerns about expansion. "We are open as an alliance to discussing them in an open manner," said spokesman James Appathurai.
"NATO's position is quite clear: democratic states in Europe have the right to aspire to, and work towards, NATO membership. It is their choice, not NATO's," he said.
"NATO's door is open to them and these two democracies have indicated their desire to move closer to NATO."
Bush is due to visit Ukraine before the summit and met Georgia's president for talks in Washington last week. He said after those talks that he backed closer ties between Georgia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
QUESTION OF DEMOCRACY
Speaking in his first interview since he won a March 2 presidential election, Medvedev questioned why Ukraine was seeking NATO membership when a large part of the population, mostly in the Russian-speaking east, opposed the idea.
"It is a thing that is hard to explain when the overwhelming majority of citizens of one of the states, like Ukraine for example, is categorically against joining NATO but the government of that state conducts a different policy," he said.
"It is precisely this that is a question of real democracy. At the minimum, in situations like this it is the done thing to hold a referendum," said Medvedev, who will be sworn in to take over from Putin, his mentor, on May 7.
Russia was powerless during the 1990s to prevent NATO expanding to include a number of eastern European states which during Soviet rule had been in Moscow's sphere of influence.
Now, its confidence restored by an economic boom and Putin's assertive foreign policy, it is determined to prevent the alliance moving even closer to its borders by taking in Ukraine and Georgia.
Russian officials say their entry to NATO could lead to the United States stationing elements of its nuclear arsenal on Ukrainian or Georgian soil, threatening Russia's security and upsetting the delicate strategic balance.
(Additional reporting by Mark John in Brussels; Editing by James Kilner and Dominic Evans)
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