02 September 2008, 14:47 CET

(BRUSSELS) - The European Union will boost ties with Georgia by backing
reconstruction after its conflict with Russia, but the strife-torn
former Soviet republic's hopes of joining the EU remain distant.

At an emergency summit focused on the Georgian conflict, the EU
decided to "step up its relations" with the Caucasus republic, in
the short term by organising a donors conference.

Longer term, negotiations will start on easing restrictions on visas
for Georgians making short visits to any of the 27 EU nations, and
the bloc will also look at ways of setting up a free-trade area.

But, as even Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze has acknowledged,
the fragile country, focused more right now on NATO membership, must
build itself up again politically and economically before thinking
about a European future.

"What Georgia needs more than anything right now is through this
to tighten integration, consolidate the gains we have made as a
young liberal democracy, as an extremely dynamic economy," he told
reporters Tuesday.

"It is clear given the circumstances that we can do so more easily
and decisively with the support of our friends and allies, and through
tighter integration with Europe," he said.

"The modality of this tighter integration obviously will be a subject
of discussion in the EU and will take some time," he said, avoiding
mention of membership in Europe's rich club.

According to an EU diplomat, no leader spoke in favour of Tbilisi's
future membership at the summit, at which the bloc froze talks on
deeper ties with Russia until it pulls its troops out of Georgia.

Poland, one of Georgia's biggest backers since the military
confrontation began early last month, called for an "association
accord" with Tbilisi but the aid and trade pact is no guarantee the
EU's door will open up.

"Georgia is not ready, particularly in economic and trade terms"
for accession, the diplomat noted and raised questions about whether
a free-trade area would even be possible to establish.

"The general position in the EU is to wait until things consolidate,"
he said, contrasting its hopes with those of Kiev, which could receive
a "very strong signal" about future prospects at an EU-Ukraine summit
on September 9.

But Tbilisi will not be forgotten.

Apart from offering aid and economic backing, the leaders want
Georgia aboard a new "Eastern Partnership" envisaged with countries
like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Ukraine and, if its democracy
improves, Belarus.

Originally seen as an awkward response to French President Nicolas
Sarkozy's Mediterranean Union, "today everyone seems to see it as a
major priority," said the diplomat.

"What we will do certainly is that we will go with an Eastern
Partnership" for Georgia, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita
Ferrero-Waldner affirmed Tuesday, raising the prospect of accelerated

In June, EU leaders had asked the European Commission to present a
plan for the partnership by early next year, but she said Brussels
"will make proposals, rather soon, maybe in the late autumn, maybe
for the December" summit.

Then, she said, "we will have to see how far we can go" for Georgia.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress