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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 November 2006, 12:20 GMT
Georgia's Nato bid irks Russia
By James Rodgers
BBC News, Tbilisi

Georgian army soldier
Georgian soldiers are receiving instruction from the US Army

The Russian-designed rifles give it away.

Everything else on at the headquarters of Georgia's Second Infantry Brigade makes it look as if the country has already joined Nato.

The Nato flag even flies next to the Georgian one above the parade ground.

The Kalashnikov assault rifles the soldiers carry betray the fact that Georgia was once part of the Soviet Union, and of the Warsaw Pact - the military alliance which was Nato's Cold War foe.

In driving rain, troops storm an abandoned building. This is only an exercise, but it is deadly serious. Georgia's army is leading its country's charge westwards - towards Nato, and perhaps eventually the European Union.

Its ties with Moscow are being discarded like the spent bullet cases which litter the rifle range.

Lt-Col Alexander Osepaishvili is the brigade's commanding officer.

"I call this long way, short time," he told me. "During two years, my brigade has changed. The Georgian military has changed - very big changes," he explains.

US role

The US Army has sent instructors to drive that change. At a military camp outside the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, they are training Georgian troops for checkpoint duty in Iraq.

Lt-Col Craig Jones says he is impressed by what he has seen.

Georgian army training
Georgian troops storm a building during the training exercise
"Obviously the soldiers that we are working with initially trained and learned under Russian tactics and learned a Russian style of fighting," he says.

"Initially there was some question with that. But they want to learn the American way and the Nato way."

Georgia's path to Nato membership will not be easy.

It does not control all of its territory. The breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have in effect been independent since the early 1990s.

Two decades of political upheaval have led to widespread joblessness.

Diplomatic row

Georgia's Deputy Defence Minister, Levan Nikoleishvili, sees the country's bid for Nato membership as part of an ambitious solution to his country's ills.

"We look to Nato as a club and as an organisation, which will not only be a guarantee for security but will also be a guarantee for development for us," he explains.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
The Russian president has cracked down on Georgian businesses
"After that we are looking to other steps to join other European institutions," he adds.

Then there is the question of Russia - already embroiled in a bitter diplomatic row with Georgia.

Matters came to a head in September when Georgia expelled four Russians it accused of spying.

Moscow responded by severing diplomatic ties and transport links. Hundreds of Georgians living in Russia were accused of breaking the immigration law and deported.

Moscow offers moral and material support to the separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. That angers Tbilisi.

Georgia is pressing ahead with its bid to join Nato. That angers the Kremlin.

Russia is keen to stop its influence declining across the former Soviet bloc.

"For the Baltic countries, for Poland and for those who want to join Nato, like Georgia, their main reason to join Nato is to have a guarantee against the Russians," says Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based military analyst.

"That makes Nato and Russia basically enemies. In a sense they are on a collision course. So a real partnership is hardly possible and any expansion of Nato is seen, in Russia, in Moscow, as a threat to our interests."

But Georgia is determined to press ahead with its bid to join Nato. The Russian media have already speculated that the war of words between Russia and Georgia could lead to armed conflict.

Further confrontation could have repercussions much further afield.

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