Bush backs closer NATO ties with Georgia

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush said on Wednesday he would encourage NATO to begin the membership process for the former Soviet republic of Georgia when he attends a summit of the Western security alliance next month in Romania.

“I believe that NATO benefits with a Georgia membership. I believe Georgia benefits from being a part of NATO. And I told the president it’s a message I’d be taking to Bucharest soon,” Bush said after an Oval Office meeting with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.

Georgia is hoping NATO will agree during the April 2-4 summit to a “membership action plan” for Georgia, a program of advice, support and assistance that would help it prepare for eventual membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Russia is opposed to NATO membership for former Soviet republics, regarding the spread of the alliance on its borders as an infringement on its former sphere of influence.

“Georgia’s aspirations will be decided at the Bucharest summit,” Bush said. “MAP application, of course as the president full well knows, is not membership. MAP is a process that will enable NATO members to be comfortable with a country eventually joining.”

Saakashvili thanked Bush for his “unwavering support” for Georgia’s security, sovereignty and NATO aspirations, adding “we’ve heard today everything we wanted to hear from the leader of the free world.”

Former communist countries now in NATO have been pushing the alliance to begin the MAP process for Ukraine and Georgia, but Germany and France are leading half a dozen Western European nations in resisting the move.

Membership for Ukraine and Georgia is still several years away. Even backers of their NATO aspirations have wavered on whether to offer MAP status at the April summit, which outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to attend.

Moscow cannot block NATO membership steps but allies know that offering MAP status to Ukraine and Georgia would strain relations with Moscow, which are already tense because of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia and the proposed deployment of a U.S. missile shield in Eastern Europe.

Aspiring NATO states can only enhance their ties with the alliance if all 26 members agree.

Editing by Vicki Allen