Hillary Rodham Clinton’s remark that the NATO summit in Chicago in 2012 should be “the last summit that is not an enlargement [one]” raised expectations in Georgia that were already quite high.
Georgia is seeking the elusive Membership Action Plan (MAP), which is NATO’s program of advice, assistance, and practical support tailored to the individual needs of countries wishing to join the organization.
A commitment such as MAP would be a powerful statement about the tangible rewards that can come from a democratic transformation like that in Georgia. NATO needs to overcome its ambivalence about Georgia’s credentials for Euro-Atlantic aspirations and rearticulate its strategy to ensure the credibility of its promises. Russia, by seizing sovereign Ukrainian territory, has already done much damage to Euro-Atlantic security.
Georgia’s integration into Western political and security structures could also help improve the security situation in the Georgian secessionist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. As Atlantic Council Executive Vice President Damon Wilson notes, “If Russia believes that its continued occupation would prevent Georgia’s NATO membership, then that occupation threatens to become permanent.” Baltic States’ NATO membership facilitated the normalization of their relations with Russia, proving wrong skeptics who feared Baltic membership might be a destabilizing influence. NATO should offer clear roadmaps to membership and welcome Georgia as it meets the standards.
At the Bucharest Summit in 2008, NATO declared that Georgia would become a member of the alliance. This decision was reaffirmed at the summits at Strasbourg/Kehl, Lisbon, Chicago, and Wales. Georgia is ready for the official NATO accession process. It has undergone several peaceful transfers of power, its troops serve alongside NATO partners in Afghanistan, it has reformed its military to a professional force, and it has otherwise continued to be an A+ NATO student. The NATO-Georgia commission has already increased political dialogue, practical cooperation, and meaningful reforms via the NATO liaison office in Tbilisi. By moderating its position toward Russia to be less openly hostile, Georgia has improved the regional security situation. Limited trade and cultural exchanges are now taking place between Georgia and Russia.
NATO membership is a top policy priority in Georgia’s main national security document. The Georgian government, like its Baltic allies, understands that NATO has been and is the main guarantor of security, democratic transformation, and stability in the region. Besides the political consensus regarding the importance of the Alliance, 72 percent of Georgians support the government’s goal to join NATO.
Despite Georgia’s hard work, the Wales Summit did not result in approval of a MAP. Instead the alliance “endorsed a substantial package for Georgia that includes defense capacity building, training, exercises, strengthened liaison, and enhanced interoperability opportunities.” The Wales Summit was an opportunity for NATO to demonstrate that the alliance was willing to challenge violators of Euro-Atlantic security. By not putting Georgia on the alliance’s official path to membership, NATO illustrated its reluctance to respond to the changed security landscape in Europe.
This leaves Georgia in an ambiguous situation. It is not clear whether or when the country will get a MAP. Georgia’s status is now like that of the four partner countries (Finland, Sweden, Jordan, and Australia), which hold “special relationship with NATO.” Georgia is part of a program for “enhanced opportunities within the Partnership Interoperability Initiative.”
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Tbilisi after the Wales Summit in an attempt to show the US’ appreciation for the sacrifices that Georgia has made on its path to MAP. Despite this attempt to soothe the government, Tbilisi was disappointed. The alliance was once again unable to boost enthusiasm among its members about Georgia’s membership prospects. This sets a risky precedent for Euro-Atlantic aspirations of countries from Europe’s East. NATO’s ambivalence about Georgia may send a message in the region that the alliance will allow Russia to pursue its interests in “near abroad.”
Recommendations for Georgia
Georgia can continue to improve its standing with NATO. First, it needs to continue strengthening its democratic institutions. Tbilisi should demonstrate that it is committed to consolidating democracy by ensuring impartial and transparent investigation and prosecution of its former government officials. Also, government officials should take every opportunity to remind the international community that it needs to hold Russia accountable for the occupation of Georgian territories.
Georgia should also intensify its bilateral relations with the US and EU member states to win their support for the MAP. Tbilisi should boost its diplomatic efforts to overcome Western leaders’ opposition to Georgia’s NATO membership aspirations.
Finally, Georgia should be more careful of its international image. The dismissal of the popular Defense Minister Irakli Alasania in November of 2014 raised concerns about potential implications for Georgia’s relations with NATO. Alasania’s dismissal was poorly timed. He was visiting Germany and France for meetings on issues related to increasing Georgia’s defense capacities when several members of his staff and Defense Ministry officials were arrested.
Georgia will now have to boost its efforts to convince its Western allies that its foreign policy priorities are intact. While Alasania’s firing was likely a sign of domestic political jockeying, the current government must reiterate its foreign policy goals.
Recommendations for the US
The US needs to work closely with its European allies to strengthen transatlantic security. It should match its political rhetoric about Georgia with tangible actions. First, the US Congress should give Georgia “major non-NATO ally status.” Second, the United States should hold Russia accountable for breaching Georgia’s territorial integrity. The US should use its diplomatic efforts, in cooperation with its European allies, to illustrate that Russia’s attempt to undermine the sovereignty of Georgia is unacceptable in a rules-based international system. Despite the fact that the European Union has deployed an unarmed civilian monitoring mission in Georgia as a response to Russian occupation, the de facto authorities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have denied the mission access to these breakaway regions. The US should work closely with the EU to ensure an international presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Russia-proposed treaty with Abkhazia on “Alliance and Integration” is a further attempt by Moscow to annex Abkhazia. The United States has been reluctant to condemn Moscow’s move. It should issue an official statement describing the presence of Russian troops in Georgian territories as an occupation.
The US would benefit from the alliance’s decision to grant the MAP to Georgia. Well-governed, politically stable and secure Georgia also serves the interests of the US. Having a strong and reliable partner like Georgia on the official path to membership will accelerate Georgia’s democratic transformation, which will lead to regional stability. A secure European East makes the US stronger at home and abroad.
The Wales Summit was a missed opportunity for the US to engage more closely with Georgia. By taking the lead in convincing the alliance that Georgia deserves a more substantial response from NATO on its path to membership, the US will assure that Georgia is not an isolated partner. The US needs to understand that if NATO does not put Georgia on the official path to membership, there is a possibility that Georgia will change its foreign policy priorities.
Recommendations for NATO
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March of 2014 and its support for insurgents in eastern Ukraine have made NATO members in Eastern Europe nervous. Russia poses traditional and nontraditional threats to the region. These include cyber threats and threats that Russian-funded propaganda will encourage ethnic Russians living in NATO countries to undermine their local governments.
Article 5 in NATO’s founding document states that an attack on one member is an attack against all and makes a commitment to collective self-defense. If this commitment is ever in doubt, the alliance will lose credibility. This is why NATO must take concrete steps, beyond simple rhetoric, to demonstrate that Article 5 applies unconditionally to NATO members in Eastern Europe. NATO should focus on its core mission — territorial defense and collective security. NATO needs to establish a capable and permanently based military force in Eastern Europe. This will go far in stabilizing the region and Europe.
One of the key takeaways from the Wales Summit was that Georgia enhanced its cooperation with NATO. A jointly operated training center will be housed in Georgia. The training center should be used for future NATO military exercises, both bilateral and multilateral, in Georgia. This will be a visible sign of NATO’s commitment to bring Georgia closer to the alliance.
Russian cyber attacks on Georgia in 2008 and Estonia in 2007 underscored these countries’ vulnerabilities. The NATO Cooperation Cyber Defense Center of Excellence was established in Tallinn on May 14, 2008, on Estonia’s initiative in response to the attacks in 2007. NATO member states of this center should work closely with Georgia. This will not only advance Georgia’s cyber defense capabilities, it will also bring Georgia closer to NATO.
Violence in Ukraine is reinforcing doubts about the future trajectory of Europe’s East. The Kremlin is working to prevent NATO enlargement to other post-Soviet states and has occupying forces on the ground in many of these countries, including in Georgian territories. US and European decision makers are still ambivalent about the idea of NATO enlargement.
As the Atlantic Council’s Wilson notes, “if security in Europe’s East becomes premised on Moscow’s ability to dominate and intimidate its neighbors, Western allies are in store for a shockingly disruptive set of security challenges on their borders in the coming decade.”
Slow, definite progress toward greater integration in Western security structures will provide stable neighbors in Europe’s East. NATO should examine its strategy toward its eastern partners. Part of that strategy should include a security commitment to Georgia by putting it on an official path to NATO membership.
Mariam Tirkia is an Open Society Foundations (OSF) scholar at Aarhus University in Denmark.