TBILISI - The billionaire who is likely to become Georgia's next prime minister said on Tuesday he was confident the former Soviet republic would soon join NATO.
Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose opposition coalition won a
parliamentary election last week, also responded to accusations
that he might let Georgia be drawn back into Moscow’s orbit by
underlining that relations with the West would be a priority.
“We are striving towards Europe and Georgia will definitely
be able to become a member of NATO soon,” Ivanishvili said after
talks with President Mikheil Saakashvili.
“We talked about foreign policy, our visions and so forth.
The foreign policies declared by both sides – that Europe and
the Euro-Atlantic space represent our strategies – are in
accord,” he said.
The two rivals looked reserved as they shook hands at the
presidential administration building in the capital Tbilisi,
their first meeting since the Oct. 1 election.
U.S. ally Saakashvili said during the campaign that
Ivanishvili, who made his money in business in Russia, would
favour Russia over the West. Ivanishvili denies this, and says
he is better able than Saakashvili to build bridges with Moscow.
Saakashvili had himself hoped to lead Georgia into NATO. The
defence alliance’s leaders agreed at a summit in April 2008 that
Georgia would one day become a member, but rebuffed U.S. demands
to put it on an immediate path to membership.
Although NATO says the door remains open, letting Georgia
join would upset Russia and enthusiasm for Georgian entry has
waned since Moscow and Tbilisi fought a five-day war in August
2008 over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Russia, which has no diplomatic relations with Georgia and
regards Saakashvili as a belligerent hothead, has reacted
positively to the outcome of the election in Georgia.
But Moscow, which dominated Georgia for two centuries until
the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, made clear on Tuesday that
it was not prepared to discuss the status of Abkhazia and South
Ossetia, which it has recognised as independent states.
“We hope that the changes (in Georgia) will allow the
Georgian leadership to move towards the normalization of ties
with all of its neighbours, including Abkhazia and South
Ossetia,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow
after talks with a South Ossetian delegation.
“We won’t hold talks with Georgia or anyone else about the
fate of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as the fate of these
republics was decided by their people, who supported their
independence. And Russia defined its position by recognising
their independence,” he said.
Saakasvhili’s quick acceptance last week that his party had
lost the election paved the way for a smooth transition of power
in the southern Caucasus country of 4.5 million, a transit route
for oil and gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe.
Saakashvili, who remains head of state until a presidential
election due next year, said on Tuesday he and his defeated
party respected the choice made by the Georgian people.
“There is no secret, of course, that a lot of differences
remain between us on many political and national issues,”
“But we, as a responsible government, and myself as a
guarantor of the constitution, will ensure the transfer of the
government’s functions without any accidents.”
Under reforms that take effect after the presidential
election, the date of which has not been set, the authority of
the head of state will be weakened and more power will go to
parliament and the prime minister, who will become the most
powerful executive official.
Parliament has yet to ratify Ivanishvili’s cabinet, which he
outlined on Monday, but this is a formality because his
coalition will have a majority in the chamber.
Western governments want to see whether Ivanishvili will
push ahead with democratic advances made under Saakashvili and
how he will juggle relations with Russia and the United States.
Business leaders are also eager to know how Ivanishvili
plans to fulfil promises to relax government control of
business, create jobs Business chiefs are therefore eager to
know how he plans to fulfil promises to relax government control
of business, create jobs, raise pensions and welfare benefits,
and offer free healthcare and education.