BACKGROUND: NATO-Georgia cooperation started in 1992, when Georgia became a member of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC). Georgia joined the Partnership for Peace (PFP) program on March 23, 1994, and has since been an active participant in every political and peacekeeping initiative open to non-member states. On May 1, 1997, the Parliament of Georgia ratified the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the States Parties to the North Atlantic Treaty and the other states participating in the Partnership for Peace program, and in March 1999, Georgia joined the Planning and Review Process (PARP) of the Partnership for Peace Program, helping to achieve interoperability of Georgian forces with other partners and allowing Georgia more active participation in NATO activities.
At the NATO Summit in Prague on November 21-22, 2002, Georgia declared its aspiration to NATO membership and expressed its desire to take part in the new Individual Partnership Action Plan program. The announcement came against the backdrop of ongoing Russian military operations in the Republic of Chechnya, a part of the Russian Federation bordering Georgia, and Russian demands to use Georgian territory for military operations against Chechen rebels. Russia also accused Georgia of harboring Chechen rebels in the Pankisi Gorge. In the face of strong political pressure from Russia, punctuated by occasional bombings of Georgian territory by Russia’s air force, Georgia managed to avoid war with Russia and to initiate policies that brought Georgia closer to the West. The Georgian government supported the U.S. sponsored “global war on terror” for the purpose of protecting its borders from penetration by radical Islamist groups and expelling militant Chechen insurgents from Georgian territory. Under the “Train and Equip” program, the U.S. funded and trained Georgian troops in managing antiterrorism operations. This was the first instance of combat training for Georgian troops under NATO standards, and it has had significant political implications for the modernization of Georgia’s armed forces.
On October 29, 2004, NATO’s North Atlantic Council approved an Individual Partnership Action Plan for Georgia, thus further advancing Georgia’s integration process with the Alliance. Reflecting on Georgia’s progress, NATO stated at the Bucharest Summit in 2008 that Georgia will become a member of NATO, but fell short of granting Georgia a Membership Action Plan. This decision was subsequently reconfirmed at successive NATO summits. After the five-day war with Russian September 2008, NATO and Georgia established the NATO-Georgia Commission (NGC), an instrument that allows more intense high-level communication between NATO and Georgia. Since 2011, NATO documents refer to Georgia as an aspirant partner country.
Georgia was an active part of the NATO peacekeeping operation in Kosovo, and had more than 2,000 troops in Iraq before the war with Russia. Georgia currently has almost 1,600 servicemen in Afghanistan, constituting the largest non-NATO-member contribution to ISAF and serving in one of the most dangerous areas, the Helmand province. Georgian casualties in Afghanistan include 29 dead and a larger number of severely wounded soldiers. In June, Georgia suffered its largest loss since the start of operations when 7 soldiers died in a suicide car explosion at the entrance of Georgia’s military base in Helmand.
A great majority of the Georgian population supports Georgia’s NATO membership as documented by plebiscite and multiple polls. On March 7, 2013, the newly elected Parliament of Georgia passed a bipartisan resolution on foreign policy, re-confirming Georgia’s NATO and EU membership aspirations, as well as a commitment to non-use of force in the process of restoring its territorial integrity.
IMPLICATIONS: Three major implications can be observed in the process of Georgia’s aspiration for transatlantic integration and NATO membership. Firstly, the process is bringing Georgia closer to an advanced political, economic, technological, educational and cultural space, and thus contributes to the country’s progress. The European and Euro-Atlantic vector of Georgia’s foreign policy will remain dominant, but Georgia envisions a Euro-Atlantic future together with its South Caucasian neighbors, Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as Turkey. Yet, if Europe does not firmly support Georgia’s aspirations, there is little incentive for others to follow the same path, especially in the face of likely Russian repercussions.
Secondly, Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspiration irritates the Russian Federation. Russia’s leadership portrays Georgia’s desire to join NATO and integrate with the EU as a threat to Russian national interests. In reality, Georgia’s NATO membership will strengthen the security of Russia’s southern border and help stabilize the North Caucasus. Unfortunately, Russia has not learned its lesson from the 1990s when it supported the separatist war in Abkhazia against Georgian central government, which helped destabilizing and radicalizing the region. Chechen fighters, who fought against the Georgian government, soon turned their arms against Russia. The same pattern can be observed in the North Caucasus after Russia’s aggression against Georgia in 2008 and the stationing of Russian troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The security environment in the North Caucasus has deteriorated since the 2008 war. Yet, Russia remains firm in its anti-Western and anti-NATO rhetoric, using this sentiment for domestic political purposes and playing a dangerous great-power nationalistic game. In reality, NATO is no threat to Russia, quite the contrary, and it is the job of Europeans, as well as the U.S., to explain the benefits of a Russian partnership with NATO.
The third major implication of Georgia’s NATO aspiration is the uncertainty of European strategies. The U.S. has taken a much clearer stand on the issue of NATO enlargement. In Europe, while Central and Eastern European states are supporting further enlargement of the Alliance and Georgian membership, some of the Western European countries are highly ambiguous: on the one hand they signed the 2008 Bucharest declaration, and they officially term Georgia a membership aspirant country. On the other hand, they are avoiding both political confrontation with Russia and spending political capital in convincing Russia that NATO enlargement does not constitute a threat, but would rather lead to stability, security and prosperity at its borders, ultimately strengthening Russia. NATO and its European members should be honest regarding the real reasons behind their resistance to Georgia’s NATO membership and elaborate on an adequate strategy to resolve the issue.
Georgia needs a NATO integration process as a driver for its internal political and military reforms. The country has made substantial progress on its path toward NATO integration. According to certain indicators, Georgia is even ahead of some existing NATO members. Georgia has a military that is a provider of security in the most difficult areas of Afghanistan. There is still significant work ahead to get closer to NATO standards, but Georgia has already reached the point when it can be awarded with a clear plan for membership with a timeline. The sacrifices made by the Georgian people should be adequately recognized. Georgia has all the elements of cooperation with NATO that can lead to membership, but some members avoid formalizing the process and calling it a Membership Action Plan.
CONCLUSIONS: As history has shown since the 19th century, stability in the North Caucasus can only be achieved if there is stability and security in the South Caucasus. NATO can bring much needed security and stability to Georgia, and thus contribute to greater stability in the North Caucasus. NATO is no threat to Russia. Conversely, Russia’s security will benefit from NATO’s presence at its southern border, just like it has benefited from NATO’s presence in Afghanistan. Thus, instead of targeting Georgia and manipulating its security environment, Russia could benefit from adjusting its policies and accepting Georgia’s NATO membership. This is an argument that Europeans need to make to Russia. Sooner or later Russia will recognize that strategically, NATO provides security to Russia, dealing with threats that Russia shares as well. If Russia changes its position, the issue of the conflict areas in Abkhazia and South Ossetia can be resolved in direct negotiations between Abkhaz and Georgians, and Ossetians and Georgians, where the international community can serve as a guarantor of agreements between the parties.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Mamuka Tsereteli is Director of Research at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.