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    Russia fears that Georgia's NATO membership will seriously worsen relations between Moscow and Tbilisi, a senior Foreign Ministry official said Monday.

    MOSCOW, April 23 (RIA Novosti) - Russia fears that Georgia's NATO membership will seriously worsen relations between Moscow and Tbilisi, a senior Foreign Ministry official said Monday.

    As well as being uneasy about the opening of NATO bases on the territory of Russia's former Soviet allies in the Baltic region and Central Asia, Moscow strongly opposes efforts by Georgia and Ukraine to join the alliance, saying the prospect threatens its security and will unleash a new arms race.

    "I like the idea of Georgian neutrality, but such decisions should be made by the Georgian people, Georgian voters, and the country's leadership. No one should dictate to a sovereign state how it should develop," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told a news conference at RIA Novosti.

    He said Russia is worried by the prospect of NATO air bases being deployed on Georgian soil.

    "We are particularly concerned by the possibility of our immediate neighbors becoming a bridgehead for the deployment of strategic elements of a military machine," he said, adding that Moscow expects all neighboring states to follow a responsible approach toward such matters.

    Karasin's statement seems to have come in response to remarks by the president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (PA), who said that Georgia's stability and strength is in Russia's interests.

    Jose Lello said Georgia's cooperation with the North Atlantic alliance focuses on fighting terrorism, exactly the threats and challenges that Russia is facing in the North Caucasus.

    He said stability in Georgia will benefit Russia, among others, and that it is high time for constructive dialogue.

    A NATO PA delegation visited Tbilisi April 19-21.

    Georgia will be ready to start a NATO membership program in the fall of 2007, President Mikheil Saakashvili said Thursday.

    "Georgia will be ready to move up to a higher level later this year, and we expect to receive the status of an official NATO candidate in the next few months," Saakashvili said.

    Georgian Parliament Speaker Nino Burdzhanadze said the country was strengthening its military to comply with NATO standards, not to solve military conflicts.

    "Some politicians and Russian government officials believe the unresolved conflicts in Georgia will be an insurmountable obstacle to joining NATO," she said. "Our opponents and neighbors have issued insinuating and provocative statements alleging that Georgia is preparing for war and spending large sums on the military."

    On April 10, U.S. President George Bush signed into law legislation supporting a Ukrainian and Georgian bid to join NATO.

    The NATO Freedom Consolidation Act of 2007, already approved by the Senate March 15 and the House of Representatives March 26, envisions $12 million in aid to Albania, Croatia, Macedonia, Georgia and Ukraine in 2008, which "have clearly stated their desire to join NATO and are working hard to meet the specified requirements for membership."

    A total of $30 million will be allocated from the U.S. budget to the countries between 2008 and 2012 under the same program.

    Georgia has pushed to join the Cold War-era organization since Western-educated President Mikheil Saakashvili came to power on the back of mass protests in 2003, hoping that membership will help it regain control of breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that Tbilisi believes are backed by Russia.

    Russia helped to end the bloody conflicts in the region in the early 1990s and has maintained troops there ever since.

    In mid-March, despite bitter differences on domestic issues, Georgia's parliament voted unanimously to carry on with the NATO bid.

    "NATO is a priority for all Georgian people," Nino Burdzhanadze, the speaker, said. "Hope of restoring territorial integrity and protecting the country's sovereignty are pinned on this organization. The organization is the only guarantor of stability and peace in the region."

    A U.S. diplomat denied rumors that the United States has been conducting talks on the possible placement of a U.S. missile shield in the South Caucasus.

    Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry Obering III, director of the U.S. missile defense program, said March 1 that the U.S. would like to place elements of its missile defense system in the South Caucasus, but did not specify which of the three former Soviet countries it would choose - Armenia, Azerbaijan or Georgia, with the latter being anxious to join NATO.

    The statement echoed U.S. plans revealed in January to deploy elements of its missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland as a counter to possible attacks from Iran or North Korea, whose nuclear programs have provoked serious international concerns.

    Moscow said it will have to develop an adequate response to the possible missile shield deployment in the Caucasus.

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