EU, NATO welcome Georgia vote despite concerns

BRUSSELS – NATO and the European Union welcomed on Monday the conduct of Georgia’s election in which incumbent President Mikhail Saakashvili claimed victory, but demanded that allegations of irregularities be cleared up fast.

“The European Union congratulates the Georgian people for the peaceful conduct of the elections,” EU President Slovenia said in a statement, noting observers had deemed arrangements “in essence consistent” with international standards.

“The EU urges Georgia to take all necessary steps to address the identified shortcomings in order to ensure successful parliamentary elections later this year,” it said, citing the need to boost media freedom and the independence of the judiciary and state institutions.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana called the election “truly competitive” but said allegations of irregularities — made by Saakashvili rivals who accuse him of rigging Saturday’s vote in his favor — should be cleared up thoroughly.

NATO, which Georgia wants to join, welcomed what it said was the international monitors’ view that the vote was a “viable expression” of Georgian voters’ free choice, but said it should quickly address irregularities cited by monitors.

“NATO will continue to deepen its intensified dialogue with Georgia and support further efforts to meet Euro Atlantic standards,” NATO spokesman James Appathurai said, referring to existing partnership discussions with Tbilisi.

Elections officials said Saakashvili won the vote outright with 52.8 percent, almost twice as much as his nearest challenger Levan Gachechiladze.

Western monitors said there had been violations but that the vote was a true expression of Georgians’ will. However on Sunday Gachechiladze urged supporters to protest against the result.

Georgians also voted on January 5 to say if their ex-Soviet state should join NATO. The official result is not known but is widely expected to be a resounding ‘yes’.

The country hopes an alliance summit in April will encourage its ambitions, yet diplomats said Saakashvili’s clampdown on opposition media and heavy-handed crushing of street protests late last year had severely damaged Georgia’s chances of winning a promise of NATO membership at the summit in Bucharest.

However, they did not exclude some kind of encouragement and said much would depend on how it handled the presidential vote.

EU membership for Georgia is a much more distant goal, with no specific timeframe identified.

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