NATO Chief Says Alliance Will Expand

APDe Hoop Scheffer addressing students of State Tbilisi University on Tuesday.
TBILISI, Georgia -- NATO's chief said Tuesday that the Western alliance would continue its expansion despite Russian opposition and warned Moscow that it had no veto on Georgia's bid to become a member.

In a strong message of support for Georgia after its debilitating war with Russia, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said "the road to NATO is still wide open" and Russia cannot not break the alliance's ties with Georgia through military action.

"The process of NATO enlargement will continue, with due caution but also with a clear purpose -- to help create a stable, undivided Europe," he said in a speech at Tbilisi State University.

"No other country will have a veto over that process, nor will we allow our strong ties to Georgia to be broken by outside military intervention and pressure," he said. "Georgia has a rightful place in this Europe."

De Hoop Scheffer was accompanied to Georgia by the NATO ambassadors of all 26 allies -- a display of unity. Later Tuesday afternoon, the entire delegation was to visit Gori.

De Hoop Scheffer condemned Russia's recognition of the two separatist regions in Georgia, saying Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected. He also called on Moscow to tone down its rhetoric, but admitted that NATO is "not in the business of punishing Russia" and does not want to be. "Punishing Russia is not the way forward. The way forward, really, is to help Georgia," he said.

De Hoop Scheffer said NATO would not accept Russian demands that it choose between Russia and Georgia.

He said NATO still wanted to work with Russia but stressed that it had put some ties on hold until Moscow complies with an EU-brokered cease-fire and withdraws its forces to positions held before the war erupted Aug. 8 in separatist South Ossetia.