Monica Ellena in Tbilisi -
Irakli Alasania does not like war. Like most Georgians of his generation, the energetic 40-year-old defence minister has lived through enough of it. But he knows that Georgia's strategic position, at the crossroads between east and west, means that the country needs to be prepared, skilled and equipped to defend itself if necessary.
As Nato gears up for its next summit in the UK in early September, Georgia has shifted its focus from the improbable goal of securing a Membership Action Plan (MAP) – the last step before full membership – to what the Wales summit will bring to Tbilisi. In late June, Nato foreign ministers decided to offer Georgia, as Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen put it, a "substantive package" to help the country "come closer" to Nato. In early July, Nato's special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, James Appathurai, held talks with the Georgian leadership to define what that means.
"This summit will not talk about enlargement, but clearly will talk about the open door policy," Alasania tells bne in an interview in his office in downtown Tbilisi. "What I expect is the validation of Georgia's achievements. Georgia is becoming a role model to follow in the region. We are the country that reforms, that matures its political system, and that contributes to Euro-Atlantic security."
Alasania aims to increase the interoperability of Georgia's military with Nato and to beef up the country's self-defence capabilities, such as air-defence and anti-tank capabilities. "Georgia is today a credible partner," he insists. "So I expect two baskets [from the summit]: a political declaration clearly identifying Georgia's progress and stating the next stage for the integration into the alliance, and a concrete package increasing Nato's imprint and presence on Georgian soil."
Opportunities, past and future
Georgia's long quest for Nato membership started with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The 1990s opened a window of opportunity for Tbilisi to reach out to the world beyond the Iron Curtain. But Georgia failed to take it. "Instead of consolidating ourselves, like the Baltic states, we started shooting each other," Alasania recalls. "It was a great mistake. Back then we showed Georgia's immaturity to handle the state and state relations."
As a result, Georgia endured civil wars, the loss of 20% of its territory and a quarter of a million internally displaced persons. Nevertheless, full EU and Nato membership became the foreign policy pillar of the western-oriented leadership that came to power in 2003 following the Rose Revolution.
Despite making rapid progress on several fronts, Georgia missed out on a MAP at the Bucharest summit in April 2008. The subsequent war with Russia over one of Georgia's breakaway regions, South Ossetia, in August 2008 took Nato membership off the table. But the idea was revived a couple of years later at the summit in Lisbon. "Historic opportunities are opening up for Georgia again. That's why we are acting like Nato country members: to prepare ourselves for this window of opportunity. When it is going to be open, we'll be ready."
Reform, train, equip
Since his appointment in 2012, Alasania has implemented deep, structural reforms at the Ministry of Defence that are focused on transparency, accountability and training. He raised soldiers and officials' salaries, conditions and benefits, abolished mandatory conscription, and increased civilian oversight and control, both at the parliamentary and NGO level.
"I personally have to report every purchase above GEL2m (€415,000) and explain where this money goes. The procurement system is totally transparent with electronic tenders, so that everyone can see what we are buying, unless it is very secretive, and even then the purchase is scrutinized by a parliamentary special committee," Alasania explains. "The defence ministry was the most secretive institution in Georgia, now it is one of the most transparent."
The process hasn't gone unnoticed in Brussels, as Nato has since advised the Georgian MoD to put together a team looking at institution building to share its experience with other countries. "We are now exporting our reforms," he adds.
Georgian troops have also built up their combat experience. In 1999, Georgia joined the Nato-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. Later, it sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, where, by May 2013, Georgia had 1,560 troops – the largest per-capita troop contributor and largest non-Nato force in the country. It has also suffered a high number of casualties – 29 soldiers – as its troops are deployed in unstable Helmand province. "It is a huge number for a small nation," admits the minister. "We think people understands that's the price to keep Georgia's independence, there is high support for the army. It is the most trusted state institution in the country after the church."
Moreover, Georgian troops are currently deployed in the EU-led mission with French command in the Central African Republic. As a result, Georgia today boasts some 12,000 soldiers whom Alasania claims have been trained to the highest Nato and US standards. "This exposure fundamentally changed the perception and thinking of the Georgian military. The officers that went through Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo know exactly how to conduct modern combat operations. Plus, 90% of my top military leadership has gone through US, France and Germany's army colleges, so they know how to plan modern warfare. So this is transformational."
Georgia is also looking forward to turn its training facilities into Nato ones. In fact, Georgia's forces have so impressed western officials that its troops have been certified to join the Nato response force – the alliance's 25,000-strong rapid reaction unit – in 2015 through to 2017. "On a military level, we are already a Nato member," Alasania adds.
But there is still a lot to do. Developing strong capabilities in terms of command and control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and logistics takes time, practice and a good deal of money. Michael Cecire, associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, highlights that, "conscription won't be phased out for another few years, the reserves system is still in the earlier stages of being reformed, and increased civilian control is a reality but barely institutionalized."
It is a long-term process, Alasania acknowledges. "Many things have to be strengthened, mainly logistical chains, which is one of the priorities alongside infrastructure and military education."
The Bear factor
The biggest unknown is Russia. Moscow strongly opposes closer ties between Tbilisi and Nato, let alone full membership, and it has turned Georgia's deepening relationship with the West into a battle of wills.
But the Georgian leadership shows no signs of backing down. On June 27, Georgia, together with Moldova and Ukraine, signed EU free trade and association pacts that will bring them closer to the bloc. And Alasania says the path towards full integration with Nato is irreversible, as it's "the choice of the Georgian people."
"But we are defusing tension with Russia: our foreign policy is to normalize, eventually, relations with the Russian Federation. We know though it will not be possible until Russia starts to fulfil the six-point agreement signed after the 2008 war. For now, we opened up channels of negotiations with trade and culture, so we are not giving them any pretext, at all, to destabilize the country," he says.
If the 2008 war was not enough, the annexation of Crimea and the violence in Eastern Ukraine are dire reminders of the potential threat that Russia still poses for Georgia. "Georgia's connection with the Nato defence system is hence very relevant," Alasania concludes.
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