Alliance’s September summit must offer ‘concrete,’ not ‘token’ help as Georgia faces Russia
In the same week that the European Union signed an association agreement with Georgia on June 27, NATO officials meeting in Brussels decided not to offer the country a formal plan this year to achieve membership in the alliance.
If ‘no’ is to be NATO’s formal answer to Georgia at the alliance’s summit conference in September, it will be a deep disappointment for my homeland of 5 million people in the South Caucasus region. It also risks being a danger – to Georgia’s political stability and to the credibility of the transatlantic alliance. Avoiding these risks will depend on how NATO’s message is managed and what alternative the alliance will offer Georgia.
Any such alternative that NATO offers to Georgia in September must be very concrete, and must maintain a clear trajectory toward Georgia’s eventual membership in the alliance. The formal Membership Action Plan that Georgia seeks is a NATO program of advice, training and assistance to help candidate countries build the pro-democratic and accountable state systems, including armed forces, that eventually would qualify them for full NATO membership. Amid the heightened regional tensions and dangers of Russia’s attacks on Ukraine, any program of cooperation that NATO offers as an alternative to a membership plan should tangibly help Georgia sustain its independence, promote regional stability, and strengthen itself against the giant neighbor that already occupies 20 percent of our territory. This will help defend the democratic values and objectives that we share with the Euro-Atlantic community.
Since the breakup of the USSR in 1991-1992, Georgia has endured internal turmoil, socioeconomic devastation, and instability in our neighborhood – the southern part of the Caucasus Mountain region. Russia attacked Georgia in 2008, much as it has Ukraine this year, and it seems intent on reestablishing control over the former republics of the Soviet Union.
Despite this unstable strategic environment, our people two years ago installed our nation’s first truly democratic government. Judicial and social reforms are proceeding steadily. Our economy is growing and we are regularly praised for the business-friendly climate we have established. While our democracy is still imperfect and our state-building remains a work in progress, we have been moving resolutely ahead.
In terms of values, socioeconomic development, institutional outlook and political will, we have committed to a western trajectory throughout our twenty-two years of independence. Our national identity resonates with this choice; Georgians are proud of being one of Europe’s most ancient nations, in the crossroads of civilizations. Therefore, intercultural, political and economic commitment to freedom is paramount to our survival and in tune with our national identity. Our persistent campaign to anchor Georgia to the Euro-Atlantic community, which required no small amount of sacrifices, has been rewarded by the 2008 promise of membership in NATO and an ever-closer association with the European Union. We hope the latter relationship will also, in time, evolve into full membership.
NATO’s Promises Need Substance
As Georgians pay the significant costs of our often-difficult reforms, we have come to expect tangible progress in our path towards Euro-Atlantic integration. Despite all that has been achieved, we are threatened both by the economic instability in our region and by the military threats from Russia, challenges that are often intertwined. If the promises of our Western allies – who instigated, mentored and materially supported our reform trajectory – are to have any meaning to our people, they must be given substance at this time of need.
Last week’s partnership agreement with the European Union was an important step, consistent with our expectation that the socioeconomic, institutional and political transformation will, ultimately, lead to EU membership. Nonetheless, it is clear that no growth or reform trajectory is consolidated without solid guarantees of peace and security.
In 2008, the NATO alliance decided at its Bucharest summit conference that Georgia should become a full member – a commitment we took at face value. Since then, we have taken many of the steps to prepare for membership. We have demonstrated our commitment by sending the largest number of personnel from any non-NATO country to support peace efforts in Afghanistan as we strongly believe that Georgia’s security is intertwined with the Western security perspectives in general and specifically. In earnest, there is little doubt that we are ready for the next step. Indeed, as Georgia builds its democratic project in the face of a powerful Russia whose government is currently hostile to genuine democracy among its ex-Soviet neighbors, our concrete progress toward eventual NATO membership is essential to the project’s survival..
But we have considerable doubts about whether the alliance is ready to advance toward fulfilling this commitment. Despite encouraging words from the NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, several member states are hesitant to conclude a Membership Action Plan (MAP) with Georgia to clearly set out its path to full inclusion in the alliance.
Some member states offer tactical arguments against such a membership plan, suggesting either that Tbilisi has not “as yet proven” its democratic credentials or that its defense structure is inadequate. These are incorrect and unacceptable. They disregard the very high price Georgia has paid for its commitment to the alliance. Only four months after NATO’s 2008 agreement in principle on Georgia’s membership, Russia invaded our country and occupied South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It has uprooted tens of thousands of refugees whom Georgia now must accommodate.
Also, such arguments disregard the fact that Tbilisi has contributed to NATO missions, whenever possible, with profound zeal, sparing no cost, human or material. Ultimately, both politically and militarily, Georgia can boast that it is far more prepared for membership than were states in the Western Balkans at the time of their accession. And, these states, too, were situated in a region known for its strategic volatility. In principle, this should mean that Georgia should expect nothing less than a membership plan, as NATO was in fact created to deter conflict by being ready to engage in conflict.
Some NATO members cite a strategic reservation: a reluctance to confront Russia’s actions in the Caucasus region. Perhaps, the most solid of arguments to this effect is that NATO’s granting of a membership plan now would trigger, rather than prevent, conflict with Russia. This argument often evokes the Russian-Ukrainian crisis. It leaves certain member states wary of making promises that, at worst, they would be unable to fulfill – or, at best, would have to fulfill.
On a strategic level, there is a kernel of truth to these concerns. Georgian accession to NATO would indeed call for serious commitment in a volatile region. That may not be unprecedented, since Turkey is an alliance member (and, indeed, one of the oldest). But with an unfolding economic and strategic crisis, it is perhaps understandable that the alliance feels unready for such a bold move. This admission may have broader implications, but Tbilisi recognizes that such strategic concerns are legitimate.
The Critical Need: a Concrete Step Forward
While Tbilisi does not accept the strategic argument against granting it a membership plan, it is coming to terms with it. But if Georgia is refused this plan, a concrete alternative will be essential. It should include a clear and present engagement of NATO in Georgia, such as a consistent presence of NATO trainers and advisers helping to modernize our military. This could begin anytime, and the presence of such Western nationals on Georgia’s territory would increase the potential hazards and costs to Russia of further attacks on Georgia.
In the medium term, such NATO engagement could include an investment such as a Center of Excellence for Mountain and Asymmetrical Warfare, perhaps with the participation of other Partnership for Peace countries, such as Austria, or even neutral countries, such as Switzerland. This could provide mentorship to help Georgia develop specific niche capabilities useful both to it and to NATO.
If the prevailing message emanating from NATO’s summit in Wales lacks such concrete engagement and instead suggests that the alliance is abandoning Georgia, sustaining stability in our country will become a daunting task. A NATO response that appears to be unprincipled appeasement of Russia – or a betrayal of countries that, like Georgia, has been members of NATO’s Partnership for Peace – will risk harming the deterrent credibility of the alliance.
Georgia, time and again, has stood by its allies as a dependable guarantor of stability in the region and beyond. Its progress has not been inevitable; it has required the consensus of political leadership and the unwavering support of public opinion. At the very minimum, this commitment must be recognized, cherished and cultivated. Ultimately, for as long as our allies cannot stand by our side in our region, they should empower us to defend the values and objectives we share. This commitment is possible and should become tangible.
Of NATO we ask: Please say all of this out loud in your summit communiqué. Be honest about Russia’s behavior and goals. Do not try to tame the bear with niceties about dialogue and cooperation in the Caucasus, for there are none. If NATO leaders make all of this clear, their unwillingness to move forward with the membership action plan still will be embarrassing for Georgians, but the sting will be reduced by this clear statement of support for our democratic, Western vocation. Please do not let us down.Tedo Japaridze is chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Georgia’s parliament. This article has previously been published by the Atlantic Council.