NATO says Georgia getting closer to membership

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Wednesday said that Georgia is getting nearer to full NATO membership but key reforms lie ahead before the former Soviet state can join the organisation.

"Georgia is closer but there is still work to do," Rasmussen told journalists at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili in Tbilisi.

Rasmussen's two-day visit to Georgia is his first since billionaire Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition defeated fervent US-ally President Mikheil Saakashvili's party at parliamentary elections in October.

Ivanishvili has made normalising ties with arch-foe Russia-- with which Georgia fought a brief war in 2008-- a foreign policy priority but has also pledged to carry on Saakashvili's pro-Western policies.

Moscow is fiercely opposed to Georgia's NATO membership bid -- launched in 2008 -- which it sees as Western attempts to encroach on its traditional sphere of influence.

Georgia has some 1,550 soldiers serving as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF), making the tiny Caucasus republic the largest non-NATO contributor to the mission.

NATO has previously expressed concern over a slew of investigations into officials who served under Saakashvili that the president has described as a political witch hunt.

Former prime minister Vano Merabishvili -- a key ally of Saakashvili's -- is currently in jail awaiting trial on graft and abuse of power charges.

Saakashvili is locked in a fraught political cohabitation with Ivanishvili until October, when his second and final term ends.