Georgia seems persistent in its desire for Euro-Atlantic integration. Following the Rose Revolution in 2003, Georgia’s foreign policy has prioritised NATO membership. An overwhelming majority of NATO Member States, however, remain reluctant to openly support Georgia’s bid for membership of the alliance. Is this dream ultimately going to be fulfilled or will it prove to be an illusion? NATO’s leaders are facing the question how to answer Georgia’s call. The right decision would be to finally offer Tbilisi real membership perspectives. (Featured Image © Jason Dangel, U.S. Army)
Georgia announced its formal bid to join the North-Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in November 2002. However, it was not until 2003 that NATO membership became a top foreign policy priority. Popular protests against mounting state corruption and allegations of electoral fraud toppled the regime of former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. This Rose Revolution1 marked a turning point in NATO-Georgia relations.2
New presidential elections were organised in early 2004 in which Mikhael Saakashvili realised a decisive victory. The main foreign policy goal of his first tenure was deeper engagement with the Atlantic and European institutions. To foster political, military, economic and cultural integration with NATO and the EU, Saakashvili created the Ministry on European & Euro-Atlantic Integration.3 The ultimate objective was membership of both NATO and the EU. Yet Georgia still has not obtained the much-desired Membership Action Plan (MAP) from NATO. Currently, only Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia enjoy the MAP status. Formally, the MAP process does not serve as a prelude to membership.4 In practice, it does put countries on a track to accession.
The Failure of Bucharest
The 2008 Bucharest Summit failed to grant Georgia and Ukraine a MAP. Both countries hoped to receive the formal invitation to join NATO. Some critics might argue that this summit has provoked Russia because of alleged promises made to Georgia and Ukraine. However, the compromise that was reached between the different NATO members was a vague statement saying that these countries would one day become members of NATO without specifying when. Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs under President Bill Clinton (1997-2000) Ronald D. Asmus has narrated what happened behind the scenes. In his reconstruction of the Bucharest Summit, the leaders of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania were promoting the interests of Georgia. Countries like France and Germany were much more cautious not to jeopardise relations with Russia.5
Some critics might argue that the Bucharest summit has provoked Russia because of alleged promises made to Georgia and Ukraine. However, the compromise that was reached between the different NATO members was a vague statement saying that these countries would one day become members of NATO without specifying when.
A few months after the Bucharest Summit, it became clear why Georgia was so eager to join NATO. The Russian government intervened in Georgia’s internal affairs with a full-scale air and ground attack across the country after Georgia was trying to restore constitutional order in its break-away region of South Ossetia.6 According to Moscow, it was merely protecting its own citizens. The validity of this argument is very debatable. In a most controversial move, the Russian government had issued Russian passports to Ossetian citizens and ‘created’ Russian citizens. This practice has been described as ‘passportisation’.7
The outcome of the war resulted in the de facto independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Even though the independence of these regions is only recognised by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru, Georgia’s loss of its two break-away region seems to be permanently settled. As Sophie Clamadieu explained in a previous article, Georgia’s only chance to reintegrate Abkhazia and South Ossetia into its territories is a formal agreement with Russia.8 For obvious reasons, the latter is very unlikely.
Georgia’s Security Vacuum
The fact that Georgia has no full control over all of its territories has been presented as one of the reasons not to grant Georgia the MAP and the associated membership perspectives. NATO membership would drag the alliance into a potential conflict within Georgia, as the narrative goes.9 This fear has been expressed most principally by Germany, France and Italy. At the Bucharest Summit this position was in sharp contrast with the ideas of the Baltic States, Poland and Romania.10 In a joint declaration after the outbreak of the Russo-Georgian War, the presidents of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland event went as far as to claim that not granting the MAP was seen “as a green light for aggression in the region”.11
The war with Russia fully exposed Georgia’s troubling security vacuum. Some observers, including the American political scientist John Mearsheimer, have promoted the idea of creating a neutral buffer zone in Russia’s ‘Near Abroad’ – the countries of the former Soviet-Union.12 In a previous article, I already argued that enforced neutrality is rather utopian.13 President Vladimir Putin is notorious for his claims that Moscow has certain ‘privileged interests’ in its ‘Near Abroad’ and will most likely seek political and military control over those ‘neutral states’.14
Apart from Georgia’s own security needs, it is crucial to note that Georgia would not only be a security consumer but also an important security provider.
NATO membership would finally end Georgia’s security vacuum. In July 2017 U.S. Vice President Mike Pence reiterated his country’s support for NATO membership of Georgia. According to Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili, Pence ‘clearly defined’ that the U.S. fully endorses Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic ambitions.15 However, as long as Georgia is not being invited to join the MAP process those words lack true meaning.
Apart from Georgia’s own security needs, it is crucial to note that Georgia would not only be a security consumer but also an important security provider. The country made substantial contributions to a number of NATO’s military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo. In the Afghan Helmand province Georgia has even become the largest non-NATO contributor to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).16
Recent poll numbers suggest a slight decrease in support for Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. This is most likely caused by the disenchantment with the vague and poor commitment of many NATO members to the fragile position of Georgia.17 Georgia’s frustration is understandable in the face of a seemingly inconsistent open-door policy of NATO. Whilst Montenegro recently joined the alliance, Georgia has been waiting to join for many years. The most staunch opponents within NATO of Georgian accession are seemingly led by the fear of the Kremlin’s disapproval.18
If NATO members are being led by the fear not to jeopardise relations with Russia, the Kremlin has an indirect yet problematic influence over who may and who may not join NATO.
Georgia finds itself in clear security vacuum. The creation of a neutral Georgia is not realistic, nor desirable, as it ignores the important right of self-determination. The country has proven to be a reliable security partner for NATO. NATO has a moral responsibility towards Tbilisi and it should not repudiate its duty by further delaying Georgia’s accession process. The MAP should be granted and NATO should assist Georgia in modernising its military and enhancing its defence capabilities. The repeated argument of not poking the Russian bear is no longer valid. If NATO members are being led by the fear not to jeopardise relations with Russia, the Kremlin has an indirect yet problematic influence over who may and who may not join NATO. Should we consider this acceptable?