Thursday, 03 September 2015

NATO opens military training center in Georgia

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By Eka Janashia (09/02/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On August 27, the NATO-Georgia Joint Training and Evaluation Center (JTEC) was opened at the Krtsanisi military facility outside Tbilisi as a part of “substantial package” granted to Georgia by NATO at the Wales summit in September 2014.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who was the major guest at the inauguration ceremony, said that JTEC will cement NATO-Georgia cooperation and ensure the alliance’s enlarged presence in the country. 

Although NATO and U.S. instructors have been training Georgian military units for a decade at the Sachkhere Mountain-training School and Krtsanisi National Training Center, JTEC will boost joint military exercises including troops from NATO and partner countries and will provide expertise to foster Georgia’s defense reforms. JTEC will include training sites all across Georgia but is not yet fully operational.

On the eve of the JTEC inauguration, pro-Kremlin military news TV channel Zvezda reported on Moscow’s plan to build a new radar station in Azerbaijan by 2017, with the capacity to track objects thousands of kilometers away, and simultaneously identify up to 500 air targets.

Later, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) appraised the opening of JTEC as “a continuation of the Alliance’s provocative policy” destabilizing the region. NATO’s declaration on Georgia’s NATO membership perspective at the 2008 Bucharest summit misled Tbilisi and encouraged its aggressive move in South Ossetia in August 2008, the statement said: “Those who actively continue dragging Tbilisi into NATO should realize their share of responsibility, taking into account the regrettable experience from 2008.”

In responsive remarks, PM Irakli Gharibashvili underlined that JTEC is not directed against any country and underscored the need to maintain pragmatic and constructive relations with Russia. Gharibashvili assessed the restoration of trade between the two countries as well as a direct dialogue with Moscow, which has been ongoing for three years, as a great diplomatic accomplishment for Tbilisi that should be sustained.

Defense minister Tina Khidasheli, however, took a more resolute stance. During her visit to the U.S. in August, she literally urged Washington and Brussels to enforce NATO enlargement efforts and vowed that at the next summit in Warsaw, Georgia will raise issue of membership and enlargement “stronger than ever.” She asserted that the Russia-Georgia war took place due to NATO’s reluctance to enlarge in 2008, which was considered by Russia as a green light to attack Georgia. A year later, the U.S. launched the “reset” policy seeking an enhanced partnership with Moscow, but the events in Ukraine demonstrated that the Kremlin can hardly be perceived as a reliable partner, Khidasheli said.

Russia’s maneuvering in the proximity of Georgia’s main east-west highway, located just 500 meters from the recently installed demarcation of breakaway South Ossetia’s administrative border, is a lever that Moscow can utilize in case the Warsaw summit fails to make decision on enlargement, Khidasheli declared (see the 05/08/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst).

She also warned Washington of the growing skepticism towards Euro-Atlantic integration in Georgia, especially in light of suggestions from Western leaders that the enlargement of either NATO or the EU should not be excepted for the next five or ten years.

While Khidasheli highlighted the political implications of Georgia’s relations with NATO, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg focused on technical issues. He said that the substantial package is already “delivering tangible results,” since the center will enhance the professionalism of Georgian forces, making them “even more capable and more modern.” However, Stoltenberg avoided commenting directly on Georgia’s chances at the next summit, saying that he “cannot pre-judge decisions that are going to be taken.” 

Nevertheless, for Georgia, whose casualties during NATO’s International Security Assistance Force mission in Afghanistan amounted to 29 dead and 274 wounded, and which has been aspiring for NATO membership for a decade, the opening of JTEC may not be considered as a “tangible” accomplishment.

Thus, it seems that the results of the Warsaw summit will be decisive to Russia’s future moves, as well as public attitudes in Georgia regarding Euro-Atlantic integration. Georgia’s parliamentary elections are scheduled for October 2016, while the next NATO summit will take place approximately three months earlier, meaning that a failure for Georgia to obtain at least a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) may cause disillusionment among pro-western voters and could strengthen the already growing negative perceptions of Euro-Atlantic integration.

Russia’s efforts to boost its “soft power” in Georgia suggests that pro-Russian parties have real chances to gain seats in the Georgian parliament. If Georgia fails to take concrete steps in its NATO integration, this prospect will increase even further.

Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons

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