NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer on Monday said Russia's plan to keep troops in Georgia's breakaway regions was "unacceptable" and "hard to swallow." The EU-brokered cease-fire left Moscow with too much leeway, he said.
Georgia is hopeful NATO will approve a membership action plan
Scheffer blamed oversights in an EU-brokered peace deal for not demanding the full withdrawal of troops to their bases in Russia before the war with Georgia last month.
The NATO secretary-general made the comments in an interview with the Financial Times shortly before he travelled to Tbilisi on Monday, Sept. 15, in a show of support for Georgia's NATO membership ambitions.
"If the Russians are staying in South Ossetia with so many forces, I do not consider this as a return to the status quo," Scheffer told the British newspaper. "The option of keeping Russian forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia is not acceptable."
Scheffer later on Monday denied portions of the report in which he was critical of the Georgia peace deal, saying he had only raised concerns about Russia's implementation of it.
"The secretary-general remains fully supportive of the agreement negotiated by President Sarkozy," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said, according to the AFP news agency. "He has, however, expressed reservations about Russia's implementation of the six-point plan, in particular with regard to their returning to pre-Aug. 7 positions.
"He has never criticised the EU and certainly not on this agreement," Appathurai added.
A day after signing last week's peace accord, Moscow said near 8,000 troops would stay in the separatist regions, where considerably fewer of its peacekeepers patrolled under a UN mandate before the conflict.
NATO showing support for Georgia
The object of the two-day Georgia trip by ambassadors from the 26 NATO member states will be ongoing talks -- insistently backed by the United States -- on extending Georgia membership in the alliance.
Despite the urgency now surrounding Georgia's accession talks in the wake of the conflict with Russia, NATO members are far from decided on further expansion into the former Soviet territory.
Western Europe -- Germany, France, Spain and Italy -- beg to delay inviting Georgia and Ukraine under its security umbrella, fearing a nightmare scenario in which alliance troops could face off with Russian forces in eastern Europe.
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer
Russia and NATO froze relations last month, and Scheffer, who has been particularly critical of the Kremlin over the conflict, said "a speedy revival of the NATO-Russia Council will not be easy."
At the same time, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was wrapping up a tour of Georgia's separatist region of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, underscoring the rift with the West since Russia recognized both provinces' claims to independence.
Lavrov slammed Scheffer's politics, speaking in the Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi on Sunday.
"Of course I've heard the declarations he makes, declarations that are inappropriate for the leader of such a serious organization," he was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying.
Russia's top diplomat on Monday was due in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, where the fighting erupted on Aug. 8.
Peace accord leaves many in EU unsettled
In Brussels, the EU's foreign policy chief Javier Solana affirmed the European Union was ready to replace Russian troops in Georgia with its own civilian observers within the next two weeks.
But many in Europe have been feeling burned by the rushed peace deal negotiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who holds the EU rotating presidency.
Vagueness in the accord has allowed Moscow to say it provides only for the 200-strong EU mission to deploy in "buffer zones," effectively giving the EU observers a role of safeguarding the boundaries of Georgia's separatists.
Those regions are part of Georgian territory, the EU has said, but an agreement to tackle the status of the regions in peace talks was also dropped by Moscow in the latest pact that provides for peace talks in Geneva next month.
Some Russian forces had pulled out from positions deep inside Georgia at its Black Sea port of Poti over the weekend in accord with Monday's deadline for the first phase of a withdrawal.