Jakub Kufčák (POST)

Introduction

The question of Georgian NATO membership has the potential to be brought to the fore again in the next year as part of the 2014 NATO Summit agenda. Georgia was once (during the 2008 Bucharest Summit) the reason for the biggest political shoot-out within the NATO since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and given recent developments it could well become one again. NATO should therefore find a new consensus in order to prevent this from happening again. 2014 will be the year in which pro-enlargement states within NATO will together with Georgia advocate for next step in Georgian relations with NATO. This is currently unacceptable for a group of states from “old” Europe (e.g. Germany, France) because of Georgia’s insufficient reforms and unresolved territorial integrity. Nevertheless, Russian opposition for such move is also substantial and is even an influential factor for some NATO member states (read Germany).

 

The recent Georgian parliamentary elections (October 2012) strengthened Georgia’s democratic credentials and the new government also seeks to heal the Georgia-Russia relations which were broken off after the Russia–Georgia War of 2008. This combined with sustained and considerable Georgian contribution to NATO’s out-of-area missions and deterioration of relations between both Germany and Russia and USA and Russia creates favorable conditions for new consensus within NATO to bring Georgia closer to it. In order to postpone full-fledged Georgian NATO membership, which would necessarily result in political backlash from “old” Europe and Russia, NATO should strive in 2014 to grant Georgia the Membership Action Plan (MAP).

 

Assessed realistically as a last step before membership and without any security guarantees from the NATO side, the granting of the MAP would be, by virtue of its unlimited time frame, a win-win outcome for NATO because it would not require the resolution of Georgian break-away provinces problem which is both highly unlikely and a prerequisite for full-fledged membership. This would enable NATO to cost-effectively safe its face considering the pledge it issued during the Bucharest Summit in 2008 that “these countries [Georgia and Ukraine] will become members of NATO”, avert costly internal debate and a loss of credibility when there are more pressing matters on the NATO agenda. This step would also provide necessary time for consensus-building within the NATO with regard to when is the right moment for the extension of the Art. 5 security guarantees to Georgia.

 

Background and Context

Even in the 1990’s Georgia tried to somewhat balance Russian influence in the region by maintaining relations with the NATO. It joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme (PfP) as early as 1994, only one year after the accession to Russia-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States. The relations to Russia were nevertheless perceived as crucial for resolution of the break-away provinces and their successful incorporation into Georgia proper which was seen as impossible without Russian help. The Russian assistance never really materialized and this strategic calculus failure was one of the reasons (Georgia was also close to being a failed state) why Eduard Shevardnadze’s rule in Georgia was toppled by successful Rose revolution in 2003.

Georgian NATO aspiration is, obviously, closely interlinked with its striving for territorial integrity and NATO membership became political priority for new government led by pro-western Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement Party. The Rose revolution also coincided with George W. Bush administration policy of democracy promotion and Georgia soon became poster-child for this campaign. The American army training and equipment programs soon began to build Georgian army from a scratch with single purpose – deployment in USA-led counter-insurgency operations. It is however important to note that such programs were originally launched on smaller scale in the wake of 9/11 (i.e. before 2003 revolution) and in cooperation with Russia with the aim to expel Chechen fighters from safe havens in uncontrolled areas of Georgia. In the following years the momentum behind Georgian NATO aspiration grew and its economic prosperity and substantial deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan have bestowed Georgia’s ambition promising plausibility. Yet this period of state-building was also rife with judicial and electoral misdemeanor of the ruling party given the lack of real and competent political opposition.

 

The abrupt and unsuccessful decision of the Bush administration to push for Georgian NATO membership at the Bucharest Summit in 2008 exposed deep division within NATO and uncovered different approaches to enlargement. The Georgian membership question revealed that pro-enlargement faction (USA and “new” Europe) assessed enlargement as a tool how to strengthen NATO as idea-based organization (i.e. promoting liberal democracy) even if it would mean the incorporation of militarily weak and politically immature countries. The opposition (Germany, France) postulated that enlargement should project stability in Europe and not be misused as a tool for Bush’s democracy-promotion agenda. In the end, delicate consensus was reached that “these countries [Georgia and Ukraine] will become members of NATO”.

MikhailSaakashvili_&_GeorgeWBush_-_FreedomSquare_Tbilisi_-_2005May10

Presidents Saakashvili and George W. Bush in Tbilisi on 10 May 2005

The problem is that what should have been a sober discussion about the fulfillment of NATO enlargement criteria and deciding if Georgia has done enough to earn the MAP became a heated and politicized debate about enlargement itself. The MAP was fetishized by the Europeans, who saw it as a step too far; by the Russians, who saw it as an offensive move; and by the Georgians, who saw it as a form of deterrence, a commitment of NATO aid even before membership.[1] This position still determines the NATO’s stance vis-à-vis Georgia. In reality it was a, at the time politically needed, short-term settlement that appeased both sides and prevented further quarrelling within the NATO. One side had agreed to drop the invitation of Georgia to MAP and the other had agreed that “these countries will become members of NATO.” In the end of the day, NATO gave up a core principle of its enlargement policy:[2] taking in new members on an individual basis according to their merits, which have to be proved in a gradual and transparent process. The Bucharest statement, instead, gave a guarantee for membership. In the following years USA tried to push the Georgian membership through the NATO-Georgia Commission (which was established a month after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war) instead of and without the MAP which proved unviable and, in the meantime, NATO representatives kept reiterating (not much else was done on this question) Georgia that they will become members one day. Most lately, in June 2013, the NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen visited Tbilisi and reiterated that although more reform are necessary Georgia is moving “a lot closer to NATO” and “once you have delivered, the burden will be on us to live up to our pledge that Georgia will be a member of NATO.”[3]

 

Georgia could become the crunch point of NATO’s enlargement question. Firstly, the relatively smooth transition of the government after 2012 parliamentary elections which brought to power the Bidzina Ivanashvili’s Georgian Dream party strengthened Georgian democratic credentials (one of the merit-based NATO requirements) and the new government announced in May that it will do its utmost to get MAP for Georgia in 2014. It has also doubled its contribution to ISAF mission and announced plans to turn its military into a niche counterterrorism force under the NATO doctrine of Smart Defense. It is therefore doing its best to get rid of the “security consumer” label and became a “security producer.”

 

Secondly, Georgia issued already in 2010, a unilateral pledge of non-use of force with regard to its break-away provinces and the head of the new government recently (first week of August) repeated this pledge. Russia also agreed to resume cross-border traffic after 7-year pause since Russia banned imports of Georgian wine and mineral water (main Georgian export products) and both sides now aim to restore diplomatic relations, which were broken off after the 2008 war.

 

Thirdly, what is also changing is the international context – in 2008 the “old” Europe was afraid to sacrifice its relations with Russia in the name of Bush’s agenda, but currently the relations between Germany and Russia are at its lowest since the break-up of the USSR. Russian potential to extort indirect influence on NATO actions is therefore significantly reduced and combined with sober relations between USA and Russia the conditions are favorable to assess Georgian progress without geopolitical “baggage” and on merit-based track.

 

Options

Option A could be to quietly drop the question of Georgian membership as a whole. This would certainly deal a severe blow to NATO’s credibility, since it’d mean breaking its own word in the process. But in the end, NATO’s primary interests are not to fulfill somebody else’s expectations but to enhance the security of its members. It’d also mean the factual abandonment of the Caucasus region as a whole, since the fate of Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic bid will have a radiating effect on its neighbors in the Caucasus, Black Sea, and Caspian regions. Regional modernizers that aspire to a liberal democratic future are closely watching Georgia’s push for integration. If Georgia is rejected or frozen out of the Alliance indefinitely, this would actively disincentivize democratization as well as future economic or security cooperation.[4] This option, on the other hand, would limit to zero the possibility of NATO’s entanglement in Art. 5 situation with nuclear-armed Russia over Georgia’s break-away provinces.

 

Option B could be to grant Georgia the MAP in the following year (2014). By virtue of its unlimited time frame, this would be a win-win outcome for NATO because it would not require the resolution of Georgian break-away provinces problem which is both highly unlikely (given Russian embeddedness in the conflict) and a prerequisite for full-fledged membership. NATO would avoid breaking its own pledge and costly internal debate. It would also provide necessary time for consensus-building within the NATO with regard to when is the right moment for the extension of the Art. 5 security guarantees to Georgia. This would put NATO relation with Georgia back on merit-based track and if then Georgia demonstrably fails to uphold its end of the bargain to meaningfully democratize and make serious attempts to ease its conflict with Russia and its separatist regions, a shut door would be a legitimate option.

 

Option C would be to actually do nothing, i.e. keep reiterating Georgia about the possibility of NATO membership in line with Bucharest Summit declaration from 2008 without any specific political steps. The disqualification of Georgian MAP on the basis of unresolved territorial question is not only unsubstantiated but it also hampers NATO actions and “breathing space.” This option would hurt NATO’s credibility (but not as much as option A) and it would hurt Georgia – the only party benefiting from this option to the fullest would be Russia.

 

Recommendations

Policy option B is dependent on the, probably temporary, favorable conditions created by the reduction of Russian clout on the NATO’s decisions because of the deterioration of relations between Russia and Germany and Russia and the USA. To assess Georgian progress without geopolitical “baggage” and on merit-based track would enable NATO and Georgia to benefit from this situation in the form of win-win outcome. The MAP assessed realistically as a last step before possible membership and without any attached security guarantees from the NATO side would thanks to its time limitlessness provide NATO with necessary time for consensus-building within the NATO with regard to when is the right moment for the extension of the Art. 5 security guarantees to Georgia.

 

This option does not require the immediate resolution of Georgian break-away provinces problem which is both highly unlikely and a prerequisite for full-fledged membership. This would enable NATO to cost-effectively safe its face considering the pledge it issued during the Bucharest Summit in 2008, avert costly internal debate and a loss of credibility when there are more pressing matters on the NATO agenda. This policy option, nevertheless, is not a panacea for NATO-Georgia relations. It could function merely as a postponement for real assessment of the benefits and costs of Georgian membership and in the mean time provide NATO with legible policy which preserves enough political freedom to close the door for Georgia for more legitimate reasons – e.g. if the Georgians fail to do their domestic “homework.” The positive assessment of the presidential elections in October 2013 should play an essential role in the NATO evaluation whether to pursue this policy option.

 


[1] Erlanger, Steven. “Georgia and Ukraine split NATO members”. The New York Times. October 30, 2008, [online] http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/30/world/europe/30iht-nato.4.18268641.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

[2] Kamp, Karl-Heinz. “Nato Enlargement Reloaded”. NATO Defense College Rome, Research Paper No. 81 – September 2012, [online] http://www.kas.de/wf/doc/kas_7668-1442-1-30.pdf?120920102633.

[3] “NATO and Georgia – on the right path”. Keynote speech by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at the National Library of Georgia, Tbilisi, Georgia. June 27, 2013 [online] http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/opinions_101755.htm.

[4] Cecire, Michael. “Yes, NATO should let Georgia in”. The National Interest, August 19, 2013, [online] http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/yes-nato-should-let-georgia-8906?page=1.