NATO foreign ministers on Tuesday sidestepped the thorny issue of Membership Action Plan (MAP), a fast-track roadmap for NATO membership, for Ukraine and Georgia and agreed instead to beef up practical cooperation with the two countries.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said NATO foreign ministers have decided to beef up the existing NATO-Ukraine Commission and the NATO-Georgia Commission to help them advance reforms needed for their future NATO membership.

"NATO will strengthen its advice and assistance for those reform efforts in the frameworks of the NATO-Ukraine Commission and the NATO-Georgia Commission," he told reporters at the end of the first day of the meeting.

He said NATO and Ukraine will amend the charter of the NATO-Ukraine Commission to allow new elements of NATO assistance. NATO also will reinforce its information and liaison offices in Kiev and Tbilisi, he said.

De Hoop Scheffer clarified that MAP has not been dropped. "There was no decision taken on MAP by the foreign ministers. But you cannot say that MAP has evaporated."

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner confirmed that MAP is still there. He told a separate press conference that a decision on MAP will be made eventually. He said Ukraine and Georgia are not ready for MAP at this stage.

"Work must continue in the frameworks of the two commissions --the NATO-Ukraine Commission and the NATO-Georgia Commission. For various reasons, we thought we could not go any further," he said.

De Hoop Scheffer said NATO foreign ministers have reiterated the decision made at the April NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, that the two countries will eventually become NATO members.

"All elements of the decisions regarding Ukraine and Georgia taken by the NATO heads of state and government in Bucharest still stand. And that includes very much that one day they will be members, if they so wish, of course, and when they meet NATO standards," he said.

NATO foreign ministers also agreed to allow the two countries to develop national programs on annual basis, an arrangement similar to that of MAP.

"Without prejudice to any further decisions on MAP, they will develop, with our assistance, so-called annual national programs to help them advance their reforms," said de Hoop Scheffer.

The foreign ministers were commanded by NATO heads of state and government at their April summit to review MAP for the two former Soviet republics at this meeting. But the United States, the most vocal supporter for NATO membership for the two countries, chose not to push for MAP again at the foreign ministers' meeting, apparently knowing that a consensus would not be possible.


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