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Georgia considering hosting U.S. missile defense system

RIA Novosti

02/05/2007 14:50 MOSCOW, May 2 (RIA Novosti) - Georgia is prepared to consider basing elements of a U.S. missile shield system on its soil, the country's foreign minister said Wednesday.

"If [the US] came and told us that they want to, we would certainly be willing to talk about it," Gela Bezhuashvili said in an interview with British daily The Financial Times.

He said the Americans have not formally requested talks with Georgia.

"There is no formal application, not even informal talks," he said. "But if they ask for help, we will talk with them."

Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, said earlier the U.S. would like to deploy a forward-based radar in the Caucasus to facilitate its ability to track missiles originating from Iran.

Bezhulashvili said the majority of the country's population supports NATO membership.

"We have public support for NATO membership at 84 per cent, have recently doubled our troops in Iraq - I do not think it would be a problem," he said.

But he said that while relations with the U.S. are improving, further tension was expected in relations with Russia.

"I think the relationship will actually deteriorate in the future. The "dynamics in all of this" were "not very promising," he said.

Russia fears that Georgia's NATO membership will seriously worsen relations between Moscow and Tbilisi, a senior Foreign Ministry official said last week.

As well as being uneasy about the opening of NATO bases on the territory of Russia's former Soviet allies in the Baltic region and Central Asia, Moscow strongly opposes efforts by Georgia and Ukraine to join the alliance, saying the prospect threatens its security and will unleash a new arms race.

"I like the idea of Georgian neutrality, but such decisions should be made by the Georgian people, Georgian voters, and the country's leadership. No one should dictate to a sovereign state how it should develop," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told a news conference at RIA Novosti.

He said Russia is worried by the prospect of NATO air bases being deployed on Georgian soil.

"We are particularly concerned by the possibility of our immediate neighbors becoming a bridgehead for the deployment of strategic elements of a military machine," he said, adding that Moscow expects all neighboring states to follow a responsible approach toward such matters.

Karasin's statement seems to have come in response to remarks by the president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (PA), who said that Georgia's stability and strength is in Russia's interests.

Jose Lello said Georgia's cooperation with the North Atlantic alliance focuses on fighting terrorism, exactly the threats and challenges that Russia is facing in the North Caucasus.

He said stability in Georgia will benefit Russia, among others, and that it is high time for constructive dialogue.

On April 10, U.S. President George Bush signed into law legislation supporting a Ukrainian and Georgian bid to join NATO.

Georgia has pushed to join the Cold War-era organization since Western-educated President Mikheil Saakashvili came to power on the back of mass protests in 2003, hoping that membership will help it regain control of breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that Tbilisi believes are backed by Russia.

Russia helped to end the bloody conflicts in the region in the early 1990s and has maintained troops there ever since.

In mid-March, despite bitter differences on domestic issues, Georgia's parliament voted unanimously to carry on with the NATO bid.

Moscow said it would have to develop an adequate response to the possible missile shield deployment in the Caucasus.

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