Biden says up to Georgia whether to join NATO

MUNICH, Germany (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said on Sunday it was up to Georgia to decide whether it would become a member of the NATO military alliance.

Asked after meeting Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili whether he was in favor of the U.S. ally joining NATO, he said: “I’m in favor of Georgia’s continued independence and autonomy. That is a decision for Georgia to make.”

The previous U.S. administration of President George W. Bush pressed last year for Georgia to be admitted to the alliance, but ran into opposition from countries including Germany and France.

Biden’s comments, on the margins of the annual Munich Security Conference, appeared to suggest the new administration of President Barack Obama might be less aggressive in its backing for Georgia’s NATO bid.

At a NATO summit in Bucharest in April, Georgia and another former Soviet state, Ukraine, were promised eventual NATO membership. This angered Russia, with which the Obama administration is keen to rebuild ties.

Calls for allowing Georgia into NATO grew in the United States after Tbilisi’s brief war with Russia last year, but the conflict increased concern in some European countries about letting the country into the alliance.

Critics say Saakashvili has stifled the media, judiciary and political opposition, and concentrated power on an inner circle largely blamed for taking the country into war with Russia.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who led opposition to Bush’s push for Georgia’s admission to NATO in Bucharest, said earlier at the conference that the country would join the alliance some day, but set no time.

Reporting by Ross Colvin; Writing by Noah Barkin; Editing by David Brunnstrom and Andrew Dobbie