By Margarita Antidze
TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgia's new prime minister starts a visit to Brussels on Monday intended to show that ties with NATO and Europe, rather than Russia, remain the former Soviet republic's top priority.
Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire businessman, has been dogged by accusations of being a Russian stooge since his coalition defeated President Mikheil Saakashvili's party in an election last month, ending his rival's nine-year dominance.
By making Brussels his first foreign destination, he is sending a signal that the West remains the priority for Georgia - a focus of tensions between Russia and the West and a transit country for Caspian Sea oil and gas exports to Europe.
"The fact that Mr Bidzina Ivanishvili pays his first official visit to Brussels is a clear sign of our government's orientation to the West," Maya Panjikidze, Georgia's foreign minister, told Reuters.
Panjikidze, Defense Minister Irakly Alasania and European Integration Minister Alexy Petriashvili, all former ambassadors in Saakashvili's government, will accompany Ivanishvili during his three-day visit starting on Monday. It is expected to include talks with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen as well as European Commission President Jose Manual Barroso.
The 56-year-old prime minister made his fortune mainly in Russia. Like Saakashvili, he wants Georgia to join NATO and the European Union, but he has said he would be better at building bridges with Russia, which welcomed his election victory.
Saakashvili secured a promise of NATO membership for his country of 4.5 million, but the alliance rejected calls for quick accession by former U.S. President George W. Bush in 2008.
Months later, Georgia fought a five-day war with Russia over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Russia says are now independent states.
The conflict increased qualms in Europe and NATO about letting Georgia into Europe's mainstream, concerns which Ivanishvili wants to address quickly.
"Europe is one of Georgia's biggest partners and Ivanishvili wants to secure its support in the future," said Alexander Rondeli, head of the Georgian Foundation For Strategic and International Studies think tank.
EU HOPES FOR STABILITY, CONTINUITY
Ivanishvili's promises of continuity have gone down well in Europe, which is worried about Russia's reliability as an energy provider and wants other supply routes if necessary.
"The two key words for us are continuing with the reforms and having a constructive cohabitation," a European Commission source said, referring to Saakasvhili's pro-Western policy and liberal reforms, and the need for a smooth relationship between the president and prime minister, who are rivals.
Progress towards NATO membership was unlikely until the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was resolved, according to Daniel Keohane, an analyst in Brussels for the FRIDE think tank.
"It is important symbolically to show Georgia is still a friendly country to NATO under the new regime," Keohane said.
"Saakashvili had implied the new leader was a bit too close to Moscow. Perhaps this (visit) is a way of showing Georgia ... is still very keen to pursue the path of eventual European integration even if it is still a long way off," he said.
Saakashvili must step down next year and reforms due to take effect after a presidential election in 2013 will weaken the president and strengthen parliament and the prime minister.
Saakashvili will also be in Brussels this week, where he will meet EU President Herman van Rompuy, and will address a conference attended by Rasmussen in Prague on Monday.
(Additional reporting by Adrian Croft in Brussels, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Jason Webb)