TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on a visit Thursday to Georgia that it is too early to tell whether the former Soviet republic will be invited to take the final step toward NATO membership.
NATO members voted in 2008 to accept Georgia as a member, but since then the South Caucasus nation has denied been entry into the Membership Action Plan, the last condition for membership.
NATO says Georgia must strengthen its institutions, step up justice reforms and fully respect the rule of law before it is accepted into the action plan. Tbilisi, however, claims that NATO is dragging its heels because of the frozen conflict in the breakaway republic of South Ossetia.
Speaking at the opening of a joint NATO-Georgia training center, Stoltenberg said Georgia already has "the necessary tools to continue to move toward membership."
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said the training facility would "in no way be directed against any of the neighboring countries," an apparent attempt to assuage Russia's fears about a NATO presence close to its border. Russia and Georgia fought a five-day war over South Ossetia in 2008.
Moscow reacted angrily to the ceremony in Georgia, saying that the NATO presence would tip the balance in the region.
"We consider this move as a continuation of the provocative policy of the alliance aimed at expanding its geopolitical influence," Russian Foreign Minister spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters in Moscow. "Placing this NATO military facility in Georgia will become a substantial destabilizing factor for security in the region."
Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report from Moscow.