RIA Novosti - The U.S. House of Representatives gave a final backing late Monday to NATO's further eastward enlargement, including bids from ex-Soviet Georgia and Ukraine, continuing a drive that has unnerved Russia.

The NATO Freedom Consolidation Act of 2007, already approved by the Senate March 15, envisions $12 million in aid to Albania, Croatia, Macedonia, Georgia and Ukraine in 2008, which "have clearly stated their desire to join NATO and are working hard to meet the specified requirements for membership."

A total of $30 million will be allocated from the U.S. budget to the countries between 2008 and 2012, under the bill that is yet to be signed by President George W. Bush.

Georgia has pushed to join the Cold War-era organization since Western-educated President Mikheil Saakashvili came to power on the back of mass protests in 2003 hoping the membership will help it regain control of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia Tbilisi believes are backed by Russia. Russia helped to end the bloody conflicts in the region in the early 1990s and has maintained troops there since then.

In mid-March, despite bitter differences on domestic issues, Georgia's parliament voted unanimously to carry on with the NATO bid.

"NATO is a priority for all Georgian people," Nino Burdzhanadze, the speaker, said. "Hope of restoring territorial integrity and protecting the country's sovereignty are pinned on this organization. The organization is the only guarantor of stability and peace in the region."

Ukraine has been divided on the NATO membership, reflecting major policy differences between the Western-leaning president and the more pro-Russian prime minister, who says the country is not ready for the move.

The idea is unpopular with largely Russian-speaking population in eastern areas. Mass anti-NATO protests rocked Ukraine's Crimean autonomy in late May-early June, 2006 after a U.S. cargo ship delivered military equipment to a local port ahead of a NATO exercise. The cargo was removed following the protests.

Opinion surveys have indicated that more than 50% of Ukrainian nationals are against joining the former Soviet Union's Cold War enemy.

As well as being uneasy about the opening of NATO bases on the territory of Russia's former Soviet allies in the Baltic region and Central Asia, Moscow strongly opposes efforts by Georgia and Ukraine to join the alliance, saying the prospect threatens its security and prompts a new arms race.


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