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House backs US aid for Georgia, Ukraine to pursue NATO entry

The House of Representatives voted to make Georgia and Ukraine eligible for US aid aimed at preparing them for admission to NATO, an expansion of themilitary alliance opposed by neighboring Russia.

The voice vote backed the NATO Freedom Consolidation Act, which also would make the aid available to Croatia, Albania and Macedonia. The measure endorses the admission of all five countries to the 26-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The US Senate has yet to act on a similar bill. Russian President Vladimir Putin's government has expressed opposition to including the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine in NATO. „From the West's standpoint, expanding NATO is about stabilizing the eastern part of Europe, but from a Russian viewpoint it looks like an American expansion into areas that were formerly under their control,” said James Goldgeier, who was director of Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton. Three former Soviet republics, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, already have joined NATO. A number of former members of the Warsaw Pact, the Cold War-era military alliance dominated by the former Soviet Union, also have joined. Admission to NATO requires countries to meet such criteria as having a stable, democratic political system, a working market economy, democratic control of their armed forces and neighborly relations.

While today's bill authorizes that aid, it doesn't detail how much money would be involved, according to Lynne Weil, spokeswoman for Representative Tom Lantos, a California Democrat who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Weil said the State Department had provided „no official position” on the legislation. On the House floor, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the ranking Republican on the foreign affairs panel, said the legislation calls for the „timely” admission of the countries to NATO. Georgia and Ukraine elected West-leaning leaders after grassroots political upheavals in 2003 and 2004, and both put NATO membership among their foreign policy priorities. Russia is engaged in a trade dispute with Georgia, blocking imports of wine, water, fruit and vegetables from the country in the South Caucasus, and sealing their joint border. „Who could represent a threat to Ukraine and Georgia?” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in December. „Why are they rushing in Tbilisi to join NATO so quickly? Is it to bring a real contribution to the alliance's activity in regional security, or to resolve current issues in bilateral relations with Russia?” (Bloomberg)