Georgia: Strengthening Ties, Tiptoeing Russia

01 September 2014
After months of political turmoil and Russian meddling in Ukraine, the NATO Summit in Wales on the 4th and 5th of September was anticipated to be one of the defining events for regional and Euro-Atlantic security. For Georgia, which has been striving to become a NATO member since 2002, the summit carried special significance. It is the 8th NATO summit extensively discussed by the Georgian political elite and public -- of which over 60 percent consistently supports Georgia’s NATO membership. Alongside the high expectations for a clear message on membership perspective, the summit was perceived as a protective measure from Russia regarding Georgia’s vulnerable security. One of the undisputed successes of the Wales summit for Georgia was a decision by NATO to offer Georgia a “substantial package” that includes defence capacity building, training exercises, a strengthened liaison, and enhanced inter-operability opportunities. These measures aim to strengthen Georgia’s defence and inter-operability capabilities with the Alliance, which will help Georgia advance in its preparations towards membership. It marked a strategic shift in NATO’s policy in supporting Georgia’s defence capabilities by putting NATO boots on Georgian soil. Besides a NATO defense training center that will operate in Georgia, it opens opportunities for Georgia to work bilaterally with NATO member states on enhancing its defense capabilities, and possibly includes the acquisition of desperately-needed air defense capabilities. This NATO decision is also a very clear message to Russia that Georgia’s defense and security, which is threatened by Russia, is a matter of concern for the Alliance. The scope and effect of this decision still needs to be seen, however, since its practical implementation will depend on the willingness of the member states to contribute, physically and financially, to implement it. In this regard, the visit of US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to Tbilisi just days after the summit was an important signal demonstrating the seriousness of the commitment of the Alliance and the United States. On the other hand, statements by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in May -- that granting Georgia a Membership Action Plan would not be on the agenda at the Wales Summit -- overshadowed the discussion of possible future steps for Georgia’s membership. And so, not only did the summit not grant Georgia a Membership Action Plan, it did not send any clear signal about possible next steps. It reiterated the decision of the Bucharest NATO summit in 2008 that Georgia will become a NATO member, but remained ambiguous regarding how it should advance, whether Georgia needs to go through the formal MAP process, or whether the tools it possesses (the Annual National Program and the NATO Georgia Commission) are sufficient for membership. It once again demonstrated the lack of consensus in the Alliance about the avenues and timing for Georgia’s membership. Officially, NATO repeatedly states that no third countries have influence on the integration process; in practice, it is perceived that the policy of integration takes into account possible Russian retaliation. When Georgia was denied a MAP at the Bucharest Summit, it faced a war with Russia only months later, in August 2008. In 2011, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev openly stated that the war of 2008 prevented NATO enlargement into the region. The Wales Summit declaration also contained traditional statements supporting Georgia’s territorial integrity, and reiterated all pre-existing elements of its non-recognition policy of the breakaway regions and condemnation of Russia. The declaration fell short of calling the presence of Russian forces on Georgian territory an “occupation,” though it did add a new element by calling on Russia to withdraw its forces, which potentially could lead to using the word “occupation.” Despite the same nature of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Georgia, the declaration discusses the two conflicts in separate baskets.
"The Wales summit demonstrated a significant shift in NATO’s policy towards the region and Russia, defining Russia’s actions as a threat to Euro-Atlantic Security; though it seems that enlargement has not yet become part of this rethinking."
One point of concern and fear for the Georgian public was a sentence in Paragraph 31 of the declaration, which said that “the persistence of these protracted conflicts continues to be a matter of particular concern, undermining the opportunities for citizens in the region to reach their full potential as members of the Euro-Atlantic community.” Behind the complicated wordings, the sentence raised fears that NATO may change its policy towards the frozen conflicts and make Georgia’s NATO aspirations hostage to Russian occupation. The issue is so sensitive for both NATO and Georgia that, after heated public debates, the NATO Special Representative for the Caucasus James Appathurai made a special statement clarifying that the sentence only referred to individual citizens -- not nations -- and that NATO’s policy of no third party influence remains unchanged. While this has cooled down the internal debate, it is necessary to make sure that the next summit declarations do not contain such statements that give room for dangerous interpretations. The Wales summit demonstrated a significant shift in NATO’s policy towards the region and Russia, defining Russia’s actions as a threat to Euro-Atlantic Security; though it seems that enlargement has not yet become part of this rethinking.