|NATO says Georgia closer to joining but needs reforms|
|November 11, 2011|
The head of NATO said Thursday that Georgia had "progressed significantly" in its bid to join the Western miltiary alliance, but told the ex-Soviet state it must do more to develop democracy.
"You have progressed significantly since NATO in 2008 decided that Georgia will become a member of this alliance," Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at a news conference with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in the Black Sea resort of Batumi.
NATO leaders agreed at their 2008 summit that Georgia and Ukraine could join at an unspecified point in the future, although they were denied coveted pre-membership status amid strong opposition from Russia.
"Our decision still stands -- Georgia will become a member of NATO," Rasmussen said. But he warned that "there is still some way to go", urging progress on electoral reforms, freedom of expression, media rights and freedom of the judiciary.
During his two-day visit to the country, Rasmussen also said that NATO viewed the conduct of parliamentary and presidential polls over the next two years as a "litmus test" for Georgian democracy.
Saakashvili, who has been accused by opposition critics of flouting democratic principles and centralising power, promised to continue the reform process.
"We know we have to do more work and proceed with changes," Saakashvili said.
The small Caucasus state's aspirations to join NATO have infuriated powerful neighbour Russia, which fought a brief war with Georgia in 2008 and does not want the Western alliance to expand further eastwards.
Seeking to prove itself as a reliable partner, Georgia has become the second largest non-member contributor to NATO's mission in Afghanistan, deploying more than 900 troops to help combat the Taliban and suffering 10 losses so far.
Rasmussen said that Georgia had promised to boost troop numbers even further.
"You are already the second-largest (non-NATO) contributor... By this time next year, you will be the largest," he said.
NATO membership is a key goal for Saakashvili's pro-Western administration and has strong public support amid Tbilisi's continuing disputes with Moscow.
Copyright © 2011 AFP. All rights reserved.
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