By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON - Russia may have seen NATO's recent refusal to put Georgia on a fast track to membership as a green light for its "provocative" move to strengthen ties with separatists in Georgia, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said on Friday.
Ilves, whose Baltic nation, like Georgia, was once part of the Soviet Union, praised Tbilisi for staying calm after a decree by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday ordering his government to set up legal links with neighboring Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
"The Russian decree we think is provocative, counterproductive and ultimately wrong," Ilves, currently on a visit to the United States, said in an interview with Reuters after meetings with Vice President Dick Cheney and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
"We think that this kind of decree should be withdrawn or revoked," Ilves said, speaking in English. The United States and European Union, of which Estonia is a member, on Friday urged Russia to reverse the decree.
Estonia and some other countries that were once part of the Soviet Union or its sphere of influence, argued at NATO's summit in Bucharest this month for offering Georgia and Ukraine a "Membership Action Plan" (MAP) - a first step toward entry.
The United States also favored MAPS for Ukraine and Georgia. But Germany, France and several others said neither country was ready and that Russia could be antagonized.
NATO compromised, promising Ukraine and Georgia they could one day join the western defense alliance, but refusing to give them MAPS now.
"One possible interpretation is that the refusal, the opposition to giving MAP by some members, some allies, was perceived (in Moscow) as a green light to proceed with this rather dangerous step," Ilves told Reuters.
Ilves said he worried that NATO's decision not to offer Georgia a Membership Action Plan now, was "sort of saying ... get the Georgians to react to something in a way that would preclude their receiving a MAP later."
"Their response (to Putin's decree) has been remarkably and commendably calm," he said of the Georgians. But he wondered whether Tbilisi could stay serene, especially with parliamentary elections scheduled for May: "How many cheeks do you have, to turn the other one?"
Estonia has had its own problems with Russia in the past year. Its decision last April to remove the bronze statue of a Red Army soldier from the center of the capital Tallinn sparked rioting by mainly Russian-speaking youths, and four weeks of attacks on Estonia's Internet infrastructure.
Ilves' visit to the United States comes as a new movie documentary being released there about Estonia, "The Singing Revolution," emphasizes that country's relative tranquility as it pushed for self-determination in the late 1980s.
The Soviet Union annexed Estonia in 1940 and re-occupied it after World War Two. Estonia regained its independence as the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991.
"(We were) staying calm, sublimating our angst through song," Ilves said of the years leading to independence.
He smiled. "Our Georgian friends say, you Estonians are so unemotional. I think we are emotional. We express it perhaps in different ways."
(Editing by Eric Walsh)