(Civil.Ge) — Georgian Defense Minister, Bacho Akhalaia, reiterated on November 10 that Georgia would send one more battalion to Afghanistan next year on top of 950 Georgian soldiers already serving in the NATO-led operation, most of them in the Helmand province.
The move will make Georgia the largest non-NATO contributor to ISAF.
“In parallel to participating in the NATO-led operations, we have to operate in a very difficult security environment, which requires from us a two-pronged effort on the one hand directed towards continuation of recovery from damages caused by the August war and on the other hand towards further transformation of our military,” Akhalaia said.
He was speaking in presence of visiting NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, at a welcoming ceremony for the return of the Georgian unit from Afghanistan, held at the Vaziani military base outside Tbilisi.
Tenth Georgia Soldier Killed in Afghanistan
“Your duties in the Helmand province were particularly demanding,” Rasmussen told soldiers from the 33rd light infantry battalion and praised Georgia for helping NATO in its operations in Afghanistan and paid tribute to those Georgian soldiers who have died there.
“Your service in Afghanistan is also vitally important in another way. It makes the personnel of the Georgian armed forces better prepared to work alongside their colleagues from NATO in other missions too,” Rasmussen said.
“This is the key part in your country’s preparation for NATO membership. So you not only have helped Afghanistan to stand on its own feet, you have also helped Georgia move closer to Alliance membership,” he added.
Speaking at a news conference during his first day of the visit on Wednesday, Rasmussen made it clear that there was no direct link between participation in the Afghan operation and the NATO membership.
“The Georgian contribution to our operation in Afghanistan also helps to improve interoperability between Georgian armed forces and NATO armed forces… But having said that I would also like to stress that there is no direct link between contributions to our operations and future membership of NATO; it is one factor, but there are many elements that have to be fulfilled before the membership can materialize,” Rasmussen said on November 9.
‘Elections Key Benchmark for Georgia’s Democratic Development’
Before attending a ceremony at the Vaziani military base, the NATO Secretary General spoke to a group of Georgian students at the Tbilisi State University.
Like in his previous public remarks during the first day of the visit, Rasmussen again praised Georgia for democratic and economic reforms and for tackling corruption.
“Consolidating all the institutional and democratic reforms will take time… It’s a long process, it needs patience, it needs perseverance and it needs you and your political leaders to show determination to undertake further reforms,” he said.
“Your country has made a significant progress in short period of time, but the journey is not yet finished.”
He said that next year’s parliamentary and 2013 presidential elections would be “the key benchmark for your democratic development.”
“Free, fair and successful elections demand strong and good electoral code. There must also be a level playing field for all the candidates in the elections, so that everyone who wants to participate can do so freely and fairly without intimidation and interference,” Rasmussen said.
He said the true democracy was more than just only about ballot box. “It’s about much more such as respect and tolerance for minority views, freedom of expression and fully independence of media and judiciary,” he said.
Parliamentary and non-parliamentary opposition representatives before start of a meeting with a group of NATO ambassadors in Tbilisi on November 10. From left to right: MP Guram Chakhvadze; MP Gia Tortladze; MP Levan Vepkhvadze of Christian-Democratic Movement; Irakli Alasania, leader of Our Georgia-Free Democrats; Mamuka Katsitadze of New Rights Party and Davit Usupashvili, leader of Republican Party. Photo: Guram Muradov/Civil.ge
While the NATO Secretary General was delivering speech at the Tbilisi State University, ambassadors from the Alliance’s senior decision-making body, North Atlantic Council, in three separate groups were holding simultaneous meetings with representatives of the Georgian opposition, civil society and media.
The NATO delegation will also visit Batumi on November 10 where talks with President Saakashvili will be held before the Secretary General and ambassadors from the NATO member states return back to Brussels on Thursday evening.