Georgia's membership of Nato remains a question of politics

By bne IntelliNews June 6, 2014

Monica Ellena in Tbilisi -


Recent events in Ukraine have made Georgia's desire to join Nato even stronger, but mixed mesages coming out of the Alliance show that membership criteria for this Caucasian state will be a function of internal alliance politics as well as external reality.

On June 4, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Nato secretary-general, acknowledged Georgia's "remarkable progress", but added that "there is more work to be done" before Nato membership becomes a possibility. Georgia is hoping to get a Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the next Nato summit in Wales, the UK next September.

Rasmussen's remarks made after a meeting of the Nato-Georgia Commission at the level of defense ministers in Brussels followed the less ambiguous comments by German Chancellor Angela Merkel after her meeting with Georgian PM Irakli Garibashvili in Berlin on June 2. "On the question of MAP, I think it will not be an agenda item of the next summit of Nato," she said, adding that there are options other than MAP through which Georgia's progress can be acknowledged in summit decisions.

For Michael Cecire, associate scholar at the Washington-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, such statements underline a basic reality. "Nato is not united. Not on Russia, not on Ukraine, not on collective defense, and certainly not on enlargement," he tells bne in an email interview. "The use of vague terms to answer what should be a straightforward question demonstrates that Georgian membership criteria does not comport to any objective standards, but is instead tethered to the whims of internal alliance politics."

Rasmussen acknowledged the repercussions that the crisis in Ukraine is having for Georgia, the region and Euro-Atlantic security, but also reiterated that, "Georgia will become a member as soon as it fulfils the requirements of membership."

Bucharest all over again

Tornike Sharashenidze, professor of International Relations at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs and a former director of the Nato Information Centre in Tbilisi, sees a Bucharest 2008-like scenario playing out, where the US, Canada and most Central European states were in favour of awarding Georgia a MAP at the summit held in the Romanian capital, but Germany, France and other Western European states voted against it. "I am sceptical anything will come out in September," Sharashenidze reckons. "It seems we are stuck at Bucharest as divisions remain. What remains as well is the threat that Russia poses to Georgia. If Georgia will not initiate the membership process, it should receive defence weapons or some kind of Nato presence on its soil to deter this threat."

The idea of deploying defensive Nato assets on Georgian territory is not new. In May, Georgian Defence Minister Irakli Alasania made a public request for them during his trip to the US. "The idea never gained much traction," adds Cecire. "Again, the issue remains political will within Nato, which is simply not there."

Moscow vehemently opposes Nato membership for Georgia – as well as for Ukraine – and has turned its relationship with the Alliance into a battle of wills. In December, Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Nato was reverting to the "old inertia logic of the Cold War," and "is not only preserving of dividing lines, which we are all obliged to remove, but also moving them further to the east, which is absolutely contrary to the obligations, which we have undertaken at summit level in respect of the indivisibility of security. Nobody should undertake steps that create risks for the security of their partners."

Hunting for MAP

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of the former Soviet republics, including Georgia, joined Nato's "Partnership for Peace Program" in 1994.

Full Nato membership became a foreign policy cornerstone of the western-minded leadership who took power following Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003. President Mikhail Saakashvili tried to speed up closer ties with the Alliance by deploying troops to Afghanistan to assist the Nato-led International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF), while Georgia became the first country to sign the Individual Partnership Action Plan, the IPAP. The plan sets precise requirements not only in the armed forces, but also in human rights and democratization. Georgia did not tick all the boxes, but it was promoted two years later to the current stage, the Intensified Dialogue.

But since then progress has stalled. In November 2007, Georgian police brutally crushed anti-government protestors on the streets of Tbilisi. How significant that was to what followed is unclear, but a few months later Georgia missed out on MAP in Bucharest in 2008. The opening of hostilities in South Ossetia in August 2008 and the brief war with Russia that followed took Nato membership for Georgia off the table.

Still, Brussels realized Georgia's volatile precarious position versus Russia and at the end of 2008 re-opened the dialogue, started a programme to support the reform of the armed forces, and set up the Nato-Georgia Commission that was tasked with monitoring the Annual National Program. By the 2010 summit in Lisbon, the possibility of MAP for Georgia was revived.

Ready or Not?

Not everyone is convinced by the messages coming out of Nato. "Any country, even existing Nato members, could have their shortcomings magnified as a reason not to be brought into the Atlantic alliance," explains Cecire. "But by any objective standard, Georgia has all the attributes that make it a very eligible candidate for a MAP, if not outright membership. Any areas for improvement at this point are best serviced through a concrete benchmarks. The fact that Nato is unwilling to take that step shows their true intentions on the matter." 

Indeed, reality shows that requirements can be loosened up: while all the members are supposed to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence, few of them actually do.

But there are also technical issues. Even before recent developments in Ukraine, members lacked consensus over how Georgia's membership would affect the country's breakaway regions – Abkhazia and South Ossetia– and if and how to apply the crucial Article 5, which requires Nato members to militarily intervene in the case of another member coming under attack.

Although Georgia's armed forces are in a much better shape than August 2008, full reform is a "multi-year process," says Cecire. Still, "it is possible now to start looking at acquiring more advanced defensive weaponry because there is a feeling that the Georgian army is now in a place where they can use them effectively."

The inevitable, though unpredictable, reaction from Moscow over Georgia's joining of Nato is an incentive for the Alliance to continue to play it cautiously. 


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