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Georgia Votes in Favor of NATO

Georgia's snap presidential election on Saturday included a non-binding referendum on whether the country should join NATO. An overwhelming majority voted in favor of such membership. VOA Correspondent Peter Fedynsky asked voters in Tbilisi why they seek an alliance with the West, knowing it will antagonize Russia, Georgia's powerful next-door neighbor.

Six of seven candidates in Saturday's presidential election favor NATO membership and a substantial majority of voters agree. But David Mirianashvili, who works for an international shipping company, is part of a minority that believes NATO ties would antagonize Russia.

Choosing NATO, says Mirianashvili, means rejection of the Russian market. And rejecting the Russian market does not help Georgia. He notes the move would have many negative consequences for his country.

Georgia has been feeling many of those consequences since 2006, when Russia imposed an embargo against the small former Soviet republic. The embargo has cut transportation and postal links between the two countries and deprived Georgia access to the Russian market. The embargo has particularly hurt exports of Georgian wines, brand name mineral water, and citrus products. Georgia's tourist industry has also been affected.

Moscow imposed the restrictions following the brief arrest in Georgia of four Russian military officers charged with espionage.

Akaki Nishnianidze, a Tbilisi physician, says Georgia is a pawn in a geopolitical struggle that will not be resolved by Saturday's NATO referendum alone.

The question of Georgia's political orientation, says Nishniadidze, will be decided in America and Russia. He says it is up to U.S. and Russian leaders to reach an agreement.

Architect Irakli Lolashvili voted in favor of the NATO referendum, despite the economic implications for his country. He says hotheads in Russia and Georgia spread fears that NATO membership will spell the death of Georgia. He points, however, to the Baltic States as a precedent for peaceful co-existence between Moscow and former Soviet republics that became NATO members.

Lolashvili says Georgia and Russia must develop relations on a new basis; a basis of equality, Russia's military and economic power notwithstanding. The Russians, he says, need to reconsider their position in view of new realities. They still consider us part of Russia. But that, Lolashvili predicts, will eventually fade into the past.

Relations between Tbilisi and Moscow deteriorated after the pro-Western government of President Mikhail Saakashvili came to power following mass pro-democracy protests in 2003 known as the Rose Revolution.