France's Hollande to visit Georgia as Ukraine crisis rages
TBILISI - Agence France-Presse
French President Francois Hollande. AFP PhotoPresident Francois Hollande will visit Georgia shortly, his foreign minister announced Thursday as France seeks to boost ties with the small ex-Soviet country that stands in the shadow of its giant neighbour Russia.
The French leader's visit -- due in May -- comes at a time when the European Union is seeking to boost ties with countries lying to its east, and as the West and Russia exchange increasingly strident barbs over the crisis in Ukraine where Moscow has already annexed the Crimean peninsula.
The annexation has brought back painful memories for Georgia from 2008, when tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow over the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia exploded into a five-day war that saw Russian troops sweep into the country.
"The French president will be here in a few days, the visit is being prepared," Laurent Fabius said on a joint visit to Tbilisi with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
He said the trip aimed to bolster ties with Georgia, and made no link between the visit and the crisis in Ukraine, where pro-Kremlin militants have taken control of several key cities of the southeast under what Washington and Kiev say is Russian influence -- a claim Moscow denies.
But the crisis is of particular concern to Georgia, as Moscow has several thousand troops stationed in the country's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia since the 2008 conflict and recognises them as independent states.
Fabius and Steinmeier's trip to Georgia comes a day after they paid a brief visit to Moldova, in an attempt to boost both countries' bid to formally sign a political and trade agreement with the European Union.
The agreement is part of a broader EU initiative to draw several ex-Soviet states that remain in Russia's orbit closer to the West.
The so-called Eastern Partnership suffered a spectacular setback in November when then Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych unexpectedly refused to sign up under Russian pressure.
His move triggered pro-EU protests in Kiev which evolved into broader demonstrations against his rule.
He was eventually ousted in February to the anger of Moscow, which subsequently annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula.
While Fabius and Steinmeier are keen to see Moldova and Georgia ink the EU agreement, they were both at pains to underscore that the deal was not a barrier to both countries' ties with Russia.
Georgia, which plans to officially sign up to the agreement in June, is also keen to join the NATO security alliance -- a move that would likely irk Russia.
NATO had opened up the prospect of full membership for Georgia in 2008 as long as it adopted democratic and economic reforms.
The membership process has since been frozen, but Tbilisi has made no secret of its continued desire to join the alliance.
On Thursday, Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze said Tbilisi had "demonstrated the progress demanded of countries aspiring to join NATO."
She pointed to the fact that Georgia had sent troops to the Central African Republic to help with peacekeeping efforts there.
But while Fabius and Steinmeier agreed that security in the region is a major issue, they would not be drawn over the likelihood of Georgia joining the Western military bloc.
"We are interested in deeper ties between Georgia and NATO," Steinmeier said, but referred to a major NATO summit due in September for any potential further steps.