November 22, 2013 / 4:46 PM / 4 years ago

Georgia undeterred by Ukraine's about-face on EU pact

TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgia plans to initial an agreement to strengthen ties with the European Union next week despite Ukraine’s decision to pull out of a similar accord, officials said on Friday.

Like Ukraine, Georgia is a former Soviet republic that risks upsetting Russia, with which the South Caucasus country of 4.5 million fought a brief war in 2008, by deepening cooperation with the EU.

Georgia plans to initial the agreement with the EU at a summit in Vilnius on November 28-29 at which Ukraine had been expected to sign its own accord with Brussels.

“Georgian society and the Georgian political spectrum are united that Georgia should be a member of the European family,” President Georgy Margvelashvili, who will lead his country’s delegation in Vilnius, told reporters on Friday.

“We will together overcome any difficulty or challenge that we may face,” he said. “The ambitious plan that we have - to sign the Association Agreement within a year after initialing - remains the main strategy of our government.”

Margvelashvili was elected last month to take over from the Mikheil Saakashvili, a Western ally whose drive to bring Georgia closer to NATO and the EU angered Russia, contributing to tensions that led to a five-day war in August 2008.

Georgia is further from Russia’s orbit than Ukraine is. It withdrew from the ex-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States in 2008 and its diplomatic relations with Russia were severed over the war.

Georgia’s new prime minister, Irakly Garibashvili, has said his government will stick to the ex-Soviet republic’s pro-Western course but also try to mend relations with Russia, Tbilisi’s master for most of the last two centuries.

Both Margvelashvili and Garibashvili are allies of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who led an opposition coalition to victory over Saakashvili’s party in an October 2012 parliamentary election and served as prime minister for a year.

First Deputy Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani said he hoped Ukraine’s volte-face “will give a signal to Europe and will speed up Georgia’s integration process into Europe”.

Russia, which lifted a politically charged 2006 ban on Georgian wine and mineral water this year, has made no public threats against Georgia over its plans to initial the EU pact.

But Georgia’s domestic opposition says the country may face difficulties on its path toward signing the deal.

“It’s long way between initialing and signing of an association agreement,” lawmaker Mikheil Machavariani said.

The European Union has been worried by the arrest of several former ministers and other officials, including a former prime minister, and that Saakashvili could suffer the same fate.

Reporting by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Catherine Evans

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