Georgia is very worried about the possible sale of French warships to Russia and intends to press the issue of security guarantees in France, the country's foreign minister said Thursday.
"Georgia needs security guarantees" for the long-term, Grigol Vashadze told The Associated Press on the sidelines of a speech Thursday at the French International Relations Institute, IFRI, in Paris. He was to meet later in the day with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.
Vashadze's visit to Paris coincides with the public display in St. Petersburg, Russia, of the Mistral amphibious assault vessel, which can carry 16 helicopters and has worried Russian neighbors who fear Russia may use such ships to bully them.
It also coincides with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's visit to Paris. Putin is not expected to meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is visiting Brazil, but is to dine Thursday night with Prime Minister Francois Fillon.
French participation in Russian gas pipelines to Europe will be on the agenda during Putin's visit, as will France's possible involvement in developing gas fields in northern Russia and the possible deal on the Mistrals.
Georgia, which fought a five-day war with Russia in August, 2008, fears the warships could be deployed off its western coastal waters.
"The only destination of this kind of ship is the Black Sea," Vashadze told a gathering of diplomats and international affairs experts at IFRI. "The consequences might be devastating ... We are tremendously worried," he said, adding that Georgia "simply would like to understand why Russia would need such an assault vessel."
Russia's plans to buy Mistral-class ships also have been met with concern in Estonia. Foreign Minister Urmas Paet says that Estonia's main worry is that NATO technology would be used against the allies of the Baltic country, especially Georgia, which has developed close political and economic ties with Estonia over the past years.
Estonia _ a tiny NATO country of 1.3 million _ is seeking more information from France on what kind of technology the Mistral vessels would have.
"It is one thing if it's an (empty) metal box; providing it with state-of-the-art technology makes it a different thing," said Harri Tiido, a senior Estonian foreign ministry official said Tuesday.
Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet was quoted in French media as saying this week that his country wanted to ensure that if the sale went through, the vessel would be delivered without top technology on board.
France and Russia have not signed a deal on delivery of the ships, but the possible sale has raised eyebrows in France as well.
Andre Glucksmann, a leading French philosopher, said in an editorial in Le Monde on Thursday that it was "regrettable" that Sarkozy was "cheaply selling off our principles of humanity for hypothetical contracts."
Vashadze said Georgia's long-term strategy now was "to forget about Russia" and concentrate on developing strong ties with the European Union and NATO in order to become a source of stability in the Caucasus region, which has been a constant center of volatility since the Soviet Union collapsed nearly 20 years ago.
"The less Russia we have, the better," Vashadze said.
He said he would be seeking French support to keep Georgia high on the international agenda, as well as support for greater international investment in Georgia. He insisted that his country would pursue a two-track policy to join both NATO and the EU, without giving one or the other priority.
"We are actively working in both directions," Vashadze said.