Georgia PM appoints pro-West defence chief with eye on NATO

Tbilisi (AFP) - Georgia's acting prime minister Irakli Garibashvili on Friday appointed a staunchly pro-Western politician as his new defence minister in a move aimed at boosting the country's efforts to join NATO.

"Underscoring Georgia's strong commitment to Euro-Atlantic and European integration, the Prime Minister has nominated as Minister of Defence Mrs Tinatin Khidasheli," the Government Chancellery said in a statement.

Khidasheli, who served as a chair of the parliamentary committee for European integration, is a "respected and trusted figure in Washington and European capitals," Garibashvili told reporters.

"I am absolutely certain that she will succeed in leading Georgia's relationship with Western institutions to the next level," he added.

NATO leaders agreed in 2008 that Tbilisi could join the military bloc at an unspecified future date but decided against giving Georgia a formal pre-membership status under pressure from Moscow.

Last year NATO offered Tbilisi a "substantive package" aimed at "bringing Georgia closer to NATO."

Georgia's bid to join NATO and the European Union infuriated its former imperial master Russia, which bitterly opposes the alliance's expansion into former Soviet republics.

In 2008, Russia and Georgia fought a five-day war over the Kremlin-backed separatist region of South Ossetia.

Russia's then-president Dmitry Medvedev said in 2011 the war prevented NATO's expansion further into the post-Soviet space.

Garibashvili's government currently serves on an interim basis after a seventh minister quit Wednesday his 20-member Georgian Dream coalition cabinet.

The sports minister's resignation spelled the end of the cabinet, as replacing one-third of its members requires the entire government to dissolve.

President Giorgi Margvelashvili has a week to formally submit the lineup of his new government to parliament for approval.

As the legislature is dominated by the ruling Georgian Dream coalition led by Garibashvili, it is expected to back Garibashvili's choice of ministers.

Georgian Dream, assembled by former prime minister and billionaire tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, came to power in October 2012, ending a decade-long rule by fervently pro-Western former president Mikheil Saakashvili and his UNM party.

Ivanishvili stepped down in November 2013 to make way for his longtime ally Garibashvili, but is widely believed to still call the shots.