It should now be crystal clear: Georgia no longer wants a Membership Action Plan (MAP) for NATO accession. But it still expects to become a member of the Alliance.
Georgian Deputy Prime Minister and State Minister for Euro-Atlantic Integration Giorgi Baramidze said as much on April 7, following his meeting with NATO Secretary General’s Special Representative for South Caucasus and Central Asia James Appathurai. Baramidze confidently remarked,“In fact we have more than we were expecting from the NATO Bucharest summit – we have the Annual National Program and NATO-Georgia Commission, which informally is referred in NATO as ‘MAP plus’ mechanism. We do not expect those mechanisms to be changed, because there is no need for that; Georgia has everything required for continuation of democratic and defense reforms in order to become a NATO member.”
The obvious clarification that needs to be highlighted here, of course, is that while Tbilisi no longer considers receiving MAP a national priority, the country still actively pursues NATO membership as a strategic goal. As Baramidze noted, pushing for MAP has become politically superfluous to Georgia’s broader accession process.
In other words, Georgia is now under the impression – presumably based on how it understands the argument it is hearing directly from NATO – that it will be able to join without ever being granted MAP because its participation in the Annual National Program (ANP) and the NATO-Georgia Commission (NGC) serves as a workable MAP substitute (“MAP plus” as it is allegedly referred to at NATO). Thus, Georgia believes it was already given MAP in everything but name, and will use it to its full potential. Baramidze’s words represent a culmination of the evolution in Georgia’s views on the matter.
The April 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest was a bittersweet disappointment for Tbilisi, at which the Alliance agreed that “Georgia will be a NATO member,” but made no reference of granting it MAP. Georgia’s war with Russia, which suddenly erupted several months later, practically speaking removed the issue from NATO’s agenda entirely, much to Tbilisi’s chagrin.
By the 2009 Strasbourg/Kehl Summit, however, the Alliance proclaimed that the ANP in conjunction with the NGC, which Georgia was given in September 2008, would serve as the official vehicle for NATO integration, “[w]ithout prejudice to further decisions which must be taken about MAP.” This wording may have been a deliberate nod to Russia, which vehemently opposes the possibility of giving MAP to Georgia, while at the same time denying Moscow a veto over NATO’s right to pick its own allies.
After the recent Lisbon Summit Declaration reiterated the Strasbourg/Kehl decision, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili contentedly asserted that the Alliance has evidently removed MAP as a set precondition for Georgia’s membership. Baramidze’s aforementioned remarks thus underscore Saakashvili’s words and fully embrace the NGC/ANP mechanism as a workable substitute for never having been granted MAP.
While he accepts that Georgia will never get MAP, Baramidze makes it clear that Alliance membership is still fully within reach for Tbilisi. Notably, the European Integration Minister announced that, with continuing hard work in the areas of democracy and defense reform, Georgia should be “technically” ready to join NATO in “two to three years.”
Georgia’s 2013-2014 technical readiness for membership – i.e.: capabilities, capacity, training levels, interoperability – sounds overly optimistic. But assuming for the sake of argument Georgia’s goal is achievable, that does not mean NATO will then be under any obligation to welcome Tbilisi into the fold. Strategic and political considerations for the Alliance and its individual members will still be predominantly important. Lithuania’s Permanent Representative to the North Atlantic Council, Linas Linkevičius echoed this reality last month during NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s annual Rose-Roth conference in Tbilisi. While cheering Georgia on in its reforms and calling on NATO to overcome its “enlargement fatigue,” Linkevičius admitted membership decisions “are always political not technical.”
In that spirit, NATO Secretary General’s Special Representative James Appathurai’s recent two-day visit to Georgia was clearly a political gesture to Tbilisi on behalf of the Alliance. Appathurai met with the Georgian president, foreign minister, European Integration minister, and opposition politicians. Throughout his meetings, the NATO official restated the Alliance’s commitment to helping Georgia on its path toward membership while stressing that much hard work remained ahead. Perhaps notably, no news sources seem to suggest that Appathurai made any attempt to downplay or dismiss Minister Baramidze’s prediction of Georgia’s near-term readiness for NATO membership (admittedly, he is also not cited anywhere as agreeably acknowledging Baramidze’s words). Yet, while relaying this reassurance to Georgia, Appathurai may have inadvertently made things politically slightly more difficult for the NATO aspirant.
Indeed, Appathurai’s remarks indicate that Moscow may still hold sway over Tbilisi’s ultimate prospects for joining the North Atlantic Alliance. Following his briefing with Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze, Appathurai opened up a loophole for all opponents of Georgia’s NATO accession. The NATO SecGen’s Special Representative stated that Tbilisi’s relations with its neighbors were an internal matter, “However, of course, good-neighborly relations with Russia would be useful for both Georgia and NATO.” Hardly controversial, this statement nonetheless could give Moscow less incentive to normalize its relations with Tbilisi if Russia’s main strategy for the South Caucasus remains keeping NATO out. At the same time, those NATO members looking for ways to strengthen their diplomatic – and economic – links to Russia may use the excuse of poor Moscow-Tbilisi relations to deny Georgia membership come 2013-2014.
Appathurai’s positive visit notwithstanding, clearly much work remains to be done before Georgia is allowed to fly the NATO banner. In particular, Georgia will need to keep using ANP in an analogous way that other NATO candidates have used MAP – that is, for carrying out reforms, modernization, etc. – to become “technically” ready for membership. Additionally, Georgia will probably have to sign a comprehensive peace treaty with Russia – perhaps one that simultaneously resolves the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – or, at a bare minimum, normalize its relations with Moscow to the same level as Russia’s relations with Estonia. The latter point is especially important if Tbilisi wishes to convince other NATO allies that it will be less problematic inside the Alliance than if it remains outside of it. The prospects for an amicable peace between Moscow and Tbilisi, let alone the resolution of Georgia’s frozen conflicts, remain slim for the foreseeable future, however. Consequently, Georgia will be unlikely to join NATO even if it can prove its technical readiness.
Matthew Czekaj is a research associate with the Atlantic Council’s International Security Program.