By Nini Gabritchidze
(Eurasianet) — Georgia failed to see any progress on its membership bid at NATO’s Vilnius Summit.
That was unlike fellow applicant Ukraine, which managed to see some positive changes in its application while failing to get an accession timeline.
Critics blame Tbilisi’s policies and the Georgian government’s lack of interest for this failure. Georgian officials, on the other hand, attribute the summit outcomes to the West’s lack of commitment.
“Nobody talked about Georgia” during the summit, Kornely Kakachia, a Georgian political analyst who attended summit-related public discussions in Vilnius, told Eurasianet.
According to Kakachia, Georgia showed up to the summit looking like “a neutral country” rather than the enthusiastic membership aspirant that it had once been. It’s “as if Georgia switched roles with Moldova, formally a CIS member and a neutral country, and it’s Moldovans who are more active now and waiting for momentum to open up regarding NATO.”
On July 11-12, world leaders gathered in the Lithuanian capital for the annual summit to discuss the future of the military bloc amid Russia’s continued aggression against Ukraine.
It was the first annual summit attended by new member Finland, which abandoned decades of neutrality amid a rising sense of threat from Russia. Finland’s accession, and Sweden’s planned accession effectively surmounted what had been viewed as a “Russian Veto” on NATO expansion near its borders.
Ukraine, meanwhile, fell short of getting a clear invitation or accession timeline from its NATO allies. But Kyiv still achieved some progress in Vilnius by having the requirement for a Membership Action Plan (MAP), a formal pathway to accession, removed from its application.
Yet there was no news for Georgia, once one of the most committed applicants and NATO partners. In the summit communique issued by NATO leaders on July 11, it was clearly written that the alliance reiterated the 2008 Bucharest Summit decision that “Georgia will become a member” but – unlike Ukraine – with MAP “as an integral part of the process”. The move effectively dismantled what used to be a Tbilisi-Kyiv duo, as the two countries’ applications had for years largely been discussed in tandem.
“To advance its Euro-Atlantic aspirations, Georgia must make progress on reforms, including key democratic reforms, and make best use of the ANP [Annual National Programme],” the communique said.
Georgia declared its will to join the alliance to protect itself from the Russian threat more than two decades ago. But the country has been stuck in limbo – or what many describe as NATO’s “open doors” – since the 2008 Bucharest summit when the alliance said Georgia and Ukraine would become members of NATO – without providing any clarity on when or how that would happen.
This lack of progress was often blamed on Georgia’s ongoing territorial conflicts with Russia and to some extent its lack of democratic reforms.
Still, over the years, the alliance’s support to Georgia and mutual cooperation have been expanding, and Georgia has contributed to the bloc’s military missions abroad as a close partner. The Georgian public’s support for NATO membership has remained steadily high, and various Western and NATO officials over the past years have positively assessed Georgia’s overall preparedness to join.
“Georgia seems to be hitting the glass door, as little is left of the original arguments against Georgia’s entry into NATO,” Georgian Parliament Speaker Shalva Papuashvili said in a lengthy tweet published on the eve of the Vilnius summit.
Papuashvili has lately emerged as the leading communicator (particularly in English) of Tbilisi’s positions around its troubled relations with the West. His explanations are tinged with the same pessimism found in other officials’ rhetoric. For some time, Tbilisi has repeatedly implied that being a NATO aspirant country without being awarded actual membership and protection exposed the country to “constant risk” from Russia.
Earlier, in May, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili drew much controversy by attributing Russia’s war on Ukraine to Kyiv’s NATO aspirations in his remarks at Bratislava GLOBSEC Forum in May. And Garibashvili himself not attending the Vilnius NATO summit and instead sending Foreign Minister Ilia Darchiashvili only added to perceptions about Tbilisi’s lack of clear interest in joining the alliance.
“The leadership of Georgia right now does not really believe in that [NATO membership], so they don’t really push that agenda that much,” Kaja Kallas, the Estonian PM, told RFE/RL Europe’s Rikard Jozwiak before the summit. Papuashvili, in turn, blamed such perceptions on Tbilisi’s internal politics, arguing that some Eastern European governments “now turned into skeptics, simply because their political partners in Georgia are in opposition, not in government.”
The pre-summit remarks by Georgian officials largely copied their discourse on the recent EU membership bid: There is little focus on diplomatic efforts to take advantage of new geopolitical shifts, and more on insistence that the West duly reward the country for accomplished technical work and preparation.
But that perception is not shared by Kakachia, the political analyst. “NATO is a values-based organization. Nobody will accept you there solely on the grounds of what Georgia has done in technical terms or due to earlier achievements,” he said.
This is where Georgia has experienced problems, the expert argues, listing steps that have “damage the country’s reputation.” This includes democratic backsliding, engaging in anti-Western rhetoric and failing to show solidarity for Ukraine, as well as the recent resumption of direct flights with Russia and enhancement of trade relations with Moscow.
Tbilisi’s initial reaction to the Vilnius summit communique was that it reflected an unfair double standard.
Irakli Kobakhidze, the chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, said the Vilnius summit outcomes for both Georgia and Ukraine, with the alliance failing to give clear membership timelines in both cases, stemmed from NATO’s pragmatic approach in “not seeking confrontation” with Russia.
“We are forbidden from pursuing pragmatic policies. Georgia is not allowed to do this, but NATO is,” he told Georgian Public TV late on July 11.
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.