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    Georgian, Ukrainian presidents keep pushing for NATO membership

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    The presidents of Georgia and Ukraine reiterated their intentions for their countries to join NATO when they met Thursday in the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi.

    TBILISI, March 1 (RIA Novosti) - The presidents of Georgia and Ukraine reiterated their intentions for their countries to join NATO when they met Thursday in the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi.

    Both Georgia and Ukraine have long declared their plans to seek NATO membership. 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 Western military alliance, saying the prospect threatens the security of the Russian Federation.

    Pro-Western Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who swept into power on the back of the "rose" revolution in 2003, said relations between Georgia and NATO may soon reach a new level when the organization completes an evaluation of the military reforms in the former Soviet republic.

    "We will be ready to move to a higher level of cooperation with NATO within several months," Saakashvili said. "We have preliminary information about the NATO expert's assessment regarding the reforms we have implemented within the Georgian Armed Forces. This time it is a more favorable evaluation than the previous one."

    NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said last month at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy that if Georgia successfully carried out all the necessary reforms it will have every chance of becoming a candidate for NATO membership in 2009.

    The Georgian president also said his country's relations with NATO will remain unchanged as "No country has the right to veto the further development of relations between Georgia and NATO."

    His Ukrainian counterpart, Viktor Yushchenko, said Ukraine's drive to join NATO is in line with the country's national interests and that it was free to choose any collective security system it preferred.

    "But we respect the opinion of Russia and consider the opinion of other parties," Yushchenko said.

    Two weeks ago the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs approved a draft document promoting future NATO expansion eastward.

    Among other provisions the bill affirms U.S. readiness to consider, and if all applicable criteria are satisfied, to support efforts by Ukraine to join NATO, if Ukraine declares its willingness to meet the responsibilities of membership in the alliance.

    Western leaning Yushchenko, who swept into power on the back of the 2004 "orange" revolution, is sturdily determined to take Ukraine into NATO and the European Union, but his efforts to forge closer ties with the West have been staunchly opposed by pro-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

    Yanukovych, appointed prime minister last August, has been cautious about rapprochement with NATO saying that Ukraine was still not ready for this move, and the idea is also unpopular in the country's mainly Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions.

    Opinion surveys indicate that more than 50% of Ukrainian nationals do not approve of joining the former Soviet Union's Cold War enemy.

    Mass anti-NATO protests rocked Ukraine's Crimean autonomous region in late May-early June, 2006 after a U.S. cargo ship delivered military equipment to a local port ahead of a NATO exercise. The cargo was later removed following the protests.

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