TBILISI (Reuters) - NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer condemned Russia’s military action against Georgia but shied away from making any commitment to the ex-Soviet state on when it will be invited to join the military alliance.
In Brussels, the European Commission announced 500 million euros ($700 million) over two years in aid to help Georgia rebuild after its brief war with Russia last month, and EU foreign ministers rubber-stamped the deployment of at least 200 EU ceasefire monitors to Georgia.
De Hoop Scheffer was in Tbilisi to underscore NATO support for Georgia after a five-day war in which Russia drew Western condemnation by sending in troops to crush a Georgian attempt to retake the rebel South Ossetia region.
But he made no mention of whether Georgia will be given a Membership Action Plan -- a roadmap for accession -- when NATO meets for a summit in December. Alliance members are split over the wisdom of admitting Georgia in the near future.
“Despite the crisis, despite the very difficult political situation Georgia is facing today, NATO ambassadors and I have come to support Georgia, to show Georgia that we are interested in its ambition for Euro-Atlantic integration,” the NATO chief told a news conference.
He described Russia’s military action as disproportionate and re-stated NATO’s condemnation of the Kremlin for recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a second separatist region, as independent states.
Asked if Georgia would receive an action plan in December, de Hoop Scheffer said: “The foreign ministers of NATO in their December meeting will make a first assessment.”
“I do sincerely hope that on the political track, given the very serious situation existing as it is, that there will be progress there.”
Signaling Russia’s weight in the region, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday met separatist officials in South Ossetia, one of two Georgian regions Moscow has recognized as independent states.
De Hoop Scheffer and NATO ambassadors were in Tbilisi for the inaugural session of the NATO-Georgia Commission, conceived in the aftermath of the conflict to bolster ties with Georgia, a vital transit route for oil exports from the Caspian Sea.
But the meeting is unlikely to bridge differences between member states about whether to go beyond a vague commitment issued this year that Georgia and fellow ex-Soviet state Ukraine will eventually be admitted.
Some members are wary of antagonizing Russia -- which sees both countries as part of its traditional sphere of interests -- and have reservations about whether Georgia will be a reliable alliance partner.
A crucial test of whether Georgia qualifies for the action plan was whether it could improve its democratic credentials, tarnished by a disputed election and a police crackdown on an opposition protest last year, the NATO chief said.
Moscow has said it was morally obliged to take military action to prevent a genocide against the separatists by a Georgian government it said was egged on by the United States.
Russia last week agreed to pull hundreds of soldiers from ‘security zones’ inside undisputed Georgian territory within a month. They are to be replaced by an international force including the 200-strong EU contingent.
But Moscow plans to station around 7,600 troops - more than twice the pre-war levels - in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. De Hoop Scheffer has called that plan unacceptable.
Russian financial markets and the ruble have fallen sharply since the war. The fall is driven largely by global economic turmoil but also by investor concerns that Medvedev’s liberal economic program is being eclipsed by Kremlin hawks.
Addressing Russian business leaders in the Kremlin, Medvedev said that would not happen. “We do not need militarization of the economy or a statist economy,” he said. “No one should count on a change in direction.”
Russia’s intervention in Georgia drew no direct sanctions -- in part because for many Western states Russia is the main supplier of oil and gas.
Additional reporting by Oleg Shchedrov in Moscow and David Brunnstrom in Brussels; Writing by Christian Lowe; editing by Richard Balmforth