By Margarita Antidze
TBILISI (Reuters) - 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 October 1 election.
U.S. ally Saakashvili said during the campaign that Ivanishvili, who made his money in business in Russia, would favor 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 defense 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 recognized 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 neighbors, 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 recognizing 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," Saakashvili said.
"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 fulfill promises to relax government control of business, create jobs Business chiefs are therefore eager to know how he plans to fulfill promises to relax government control of business, create jobs, raise pensions and welfare benefits, and offer free healthcare and education.
(Reporting by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Timothy Heritage)
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