By Vazha Tavberidze*
NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg has reiterated the alliance’s commitment to Georgia’s membership, telling IWPR that he was “certain we will find ways to deal with” obstacles including the breakaway areas of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The Norwegian politician, now expected to stay in his position until 2022, was highly critical of Russia’s role in the region and stressed that “Russia doesn’t have any say on Georgia’s NATO membership”.
However, he made clear that he believed a pragmatic relationship with Moscow was possible.
“I know from my previous position as PM of Norway that it is possible to work with Russia,” Stoltenberg said. “We did so for decades.”
The secretary general was in Tbilisi for meetings with Georgian officials including newly-elected President Salome Zurabishvili. He also attended Nato-Georgia military exercises.
Speaking to IWPR, Stoltenberg praised Georgia’s efforts in reforming its democratic institutions and modernising its defence and security sectors, noting that “when our neighbours are stable we are more secure, and you are now really addressing some of the challenges in this region, in your own country, in a very impressive way”.
In response to a recent Foreign Policy article by former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in which he argued that “Russia’s most likely target in the near future is either Finland or Sweden,” Stoltenberg said that such conjecture should be avoided.
“We should not speculate much because I think too many speculations just add to the uncertainty,” he said.
Q: In the beginning let’s get the elephant in the room out of it and let’s talk about factor of Russia. I’ve been reporting on in Brussels for the last eight years and I know that the official NATO line is that no other country can interfere with another country’s choice to become the member of Alliance but lately we have seen some comments from the Kremlin and Moscow that even cooperation might spell unpleasant surprises for Georgia. What would you call this kind of approach from Russia? What kind of tactic is that?
A: I think we see Russia trying to re-establish a system of spheres of influence where big powers … have some kind of right or mandate to interfere in what neighbours can do or cannot do; this has never been a good thing, this has always been the wrong approach because every nation, small or big, has the same right inside its own future and therefore it’s enshrined in a lot of documents which also Russia has subscribed to; Helsinki Final Act, the document which defined the rights of all nations to choose their own path including to decide whether they would like to be part of a security alliance or not. Russia dislikes that – well that’s their position. We adhere to the principle of every sovereign nation’s right to decide on its path, including Georgia.
Q: Absolutely, but as I said earlier, they are talking about cooperation and cooperation is why you’re here today; it’s part of cooperation and when somebody tells you don’t do this or there will be unpleasant surprises, is that not intimidation?
A: It reflects an attitude from Russia which I deeply disagree with, mainly that they have the right to decide what Georgia or another neighbour can do. Georgia is a sovereign, Georgia is an independent nation and of course Georgia then decides what kind of cooperation Georgia wants with other countries or the neighbours or with NATO. Norway joined NATO in 1949; at that time the Soviet Union didn’t like that Norway joined the NATO but we still did join NATO; Russia has protested heavily every time NATO has been enlarged with the Baltic countries, Poland, with Romania and now we saw it recently when Montenegro joined. Russia protested about North Macedonia joining, but North Macedonia is still joining; and of course it’s for you to decide, Georgia to decide what kind of level of cooperation activities you want to do with NATO – that’s for you, and of course, the NATO allies, to decide. Russia doesn’t have any say on that.
Q: I think it’s well appreciated by the Georgian public; we have an overwhelming majority supporting NATO and EU integration. There are also sceptics but I think the whole society would want to know if something happens and if these surprises do indeed materialize what kind of assurances they could count on from NATO?
A: NATO supports Georgia with political support, we support your sovereignty, integrity; we provide significant practical support with presence in different ways in Georgia, with exercises; you are part of our readiness force; there is the training centre, there is a NATO-Georgia Commission, we have the annual national programme, we have NATO trainers and advisors here in Georgia, many of them directly working for NATO, others work for NATO allies but still it’s part of the broader NATO support to Georgia. So it’s obvious that NATO is already in Georgia – there is more NATO in Georgia than ever before because you are part of our missions operations in many places.
Q: I read the Washington Post article recently where it says a huge military facility will be built in Poland and the idea behind that is to deter Russia to having ideas about venturing into Europe; what I would like to ask is, what are the red lines for Russia when it comes to NATO?
A: We don’t accept that they defined red lines for what sovereign nations can do. We will always be a defensive alliance and of course we will always respect the integrity, the territorial integrity of our neighbours because we are a defensive alliance and we will never force any country to join NATO; we have excellent neighbours, partners like Sweden and Finland, Austria and to mention Serbia, it’s a partner of NATO. They have clearly stated that they don’t want to become NATO member – fine, that’s their decision. So when Sweden and Serbia have decided, two different countries but both neighbouring NATO and decided they will have to stay neutral, to stay outside NATO, that’s a decision we absolutely respect because NATO has never been in the business of forcing others to do something they don’t want. But then we welcome the fact that these, countries Finland, Sweden, Austria or Serbia are the neutral countries in Europe, our close partners and that’s fine but this is about what we decide through democratic processes, voluntary decisions.
Q: Funny enough you mentioned Finland and Sweden and there has been a recent article from our ex-President Saakashvili who opined that the next country to face a threat from Russia will be exactly those two countries. Would you share your thoughts on this?
A: First of all, we should not speculate much because I think too many speculations just add to the uncertainty and may actually increase tensions. Our aim is to reduce tensions, is to calm down and actually work for better relationship with Russia. I know from my previous position as PM of Norway that it is possible to work with Russia; we did so for decades, even in the coldest period of the Cold War Norway worked with Russia on border issues in the north, on energy, on fishery, on military cooperation but that was not despite NATO, it was because of NATO; NATO provided us the strength and the unity that enabled us as a small neighborhood of Russia to also sit down and work with Russia; so we should not, we should not increase tensions, we should try to reduce tensions and to continue to work for a better relationship with Russia – and that’s the reason why NATO has a three pronged approach: deterrence, defence and dialogue – and second we don’t see any imminent threat against any NATO ally; we see threats for terrorist attacks, with cyber attacks but we don’t see any threat…
Q: Including Georgia?
A: Well it’s not for us to make an assessment on behalf of Georgia but when you speak about NATO allies we don’t see any imminent threat.
Q: And to follow up on the notion of working with Russia; based on this [Russian] government and based on what this government is doing, do you see them as feasible partners in foreseeable future?
A: Then Russia has to change behaviour. I’m always very reluctant to predict when things may happen: I think that NATO has to be prepared for both the situation wherever Russia continues to confront us and that’s reason why we are implementing the biggest reinforcement of collective defence with combat troops in the eastern part of alliance for the first time in our history. We are modernising the command structure, we have increased defence spending. So we have done a lot to strengthen our collective defence in response to Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine but at the same time we are open for dialogue, for working with Russia and it’s up to Russia to decide and I’m very careful about predicting too much about when Russia may change behaviour, that may be in the distant future or it may happen soon; that’s impossible to say anything with certainty about today. We have to remember that no one was able to predict the fall of the Berlin Wall, we didn’t predict 9/11, the illegal annexation of Crimea; so we just have to be prepared for the unforeseen, we need a strategy to deal with uncertainty, with surprises and that strategy is a strong NATO because NATO reduces risks and NATO enables to deal with surprises where they happen. Georgia is working with NATO on this. Georgia is moving towards membership.
Q: That was the point of my next question. I spoke to your predecessor in December and he said that the so-called occupied territories, the breakaway regions recognised by Russia are acting as an obstacle towards Georgia’s membership to NATO; would you comment on that opinion? How much of a factor is that?
A: First and the most important message is that NATO recognises territorial integrity of Georgia within its recognised international borders; second we call on Russia to withdraw its forces from Abkhazia and South Ossetia and to stop recognising that; thirdly NATO made the decision that Georgia will become the member; we reiterated that many times; so I am actually certain we will find ways to deal with it. The important thing now for Georgia is to focus on the reform, to improve your democratic institutions, mobilise defense and security institutions and then we will from our side to continue to work on the message, the commitment of NATO to support you on your way.
Q: You said you are averse to predictions but I can predict that some of our readership when reading about reforms, reading about this part of the interview will inquire – if reforms are the deciding factor, how came countries like Montenegro and Macedonia and so on joining and we are not. When we look at democratic standards and rankings we are not far behind, if not above them.
A: First of all these countries implemented significant reforms. At the end of the day it’s a political decision and every aspirant country has to be assessed on its own merits. The only thing Georgia can do is to continue to implement reforms and to modernise defense and security sector as we are doing here at the NATO training center, to exercise together, to meet our standards in many different ways and in different areas; that’s the only way towards membership; then to become a member we need consensus, we need the political conditions in place; I can’t say exactly when that will happen but I can say that all NATO allies agreed that you will become a member and as soon as political conditions are in place then you should be ready to join. The good thing with reform is that you don’t you should not reform only to please NATO, you should reform because that’s good for your society. It makes you more resilient, it makes a democratic institution stronger and makes your armed forces better and on top of that it helps you to move towards both NATO and the European Union.
Q: We were speaking about consensus, those in that consensus who are sceptical towards it -what are their reasons?
A: I would not go to specific arguments on different NATO allies. All allies agree that you must continue to implement reforms, to strengthen different security institutions, democratic institutions and we provide you with help. We are extremely grateful for the partnership with Georgia… because you contribute so much to our security as we very often say in it when our neighbours are stable we are more secure and you are now really addressing some of the challenges in this region, in your own country in a very impressive way and that’s good for Georgia and for NATO. You have been present in Afghanistan for many years; today I met some wounded soldiers in a NATO mission in Afghanistan, some Georgian soldiers participated there and of course we are grateful, we pay respect to all those from Georgia who served in NATO missions and operations.
Interview conducted by Vazha Tavberidze, IWPR contributor in Georgia.