TBILISI Russia's military campaign in Georgia has bolstered Georgians' determination to join NATO, Eduard Shevardnadze, the man who helped end the Cold War and reconcile Moscow with the West, said on Thursday.
"Georgia has no other choice ... People have understood that if it is Georgia today (attacked by Russian forces) then tomorrow it could be Poland or the Czech Republic," Shevardnadze told Reuters in an interview at his hillside villa near Tbilisi.
"Georgia was a Russian colony for more than 200 years ... But this is the 21st century, the time for colonies is over. Georgia now has the strong support of the outside world."
Shevardnadze, now 80, is best known for his role as Soviet foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev in fostering reforms that led to the end of communism in eastern Europe, the reunification of Germany and the demise of the Soviet Union.
He then ruled his native Georgia for a decade until his overthrow in the "rose revolution" of the youthful, pro-Western Mikheil Saakashvili in 2003.
President Saakashvili's decision to send Georgian troops into breakaway South Ossetia two weeks ago triggered a huge Russian counter-offensive that has left relations between Moscow and the West more strained than at any time since the Cold War.
Shevardnadze declined to criticize Saakashvili's handling of the South Ossetia crisis, saying: "Now is not the time."
Echoing his successor's stance, he said: "The lands of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are our Georgian land, the demands of our people for their return are legitimate."
"I appeal to (Russian) President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to immediately end the occupation of Georgia and to take their forces off its territory," he said, quoting the text of a statement he would send to the Kremlin.
In an ironic reminder of the intractability of Georgia's problems, a group of about 30 mostly elderly Georgians protested outside Shevardnadze's villa against his handling of another separatist conflict some 15 years ago.
As Georgian leader in 1993, Shevardnadze presided over an ill-fated attempt to retake control of Abkhazia, a breakaway Georgian province on the Black Sea coast. Tens of thousands were killed and an estimated 300,000 people have still not been able to return to their homes.
"Shevardnadze -- terrorist!" chanted the protesters, angry about not being able to return home after so many years.