By Joseph Jorjoliani and Jack Myint*
On December 2, NATO member states extended an invitation to Montenegro to become the alliance’s 29th member, affirming NATO’s commitment to its “open-door policy.” This invitation signals a clear message that Russia does not hold an unofficial veto in the alliance, as some analysts claim, and demonstrates that NATO is not bound by Cold War era thinking, but instead by a moral imperative that recognizes nations’ freedom to choose their defensive alliance. This development creates much hope and optimism for Georgia, a former Soviet nation long deprived of NATO membership primarily due to past and ongoing conflict with Russia. Georgia’s case is a clear example of why one cannot dismiss Russia’s continuing influence and political pull on some of NATO’s key members.
Georgia has been promised NATO membership since 2008. The official Bucharest Summit Declaration states, “We agreed today that Georgia [and Ukraine] will become members of NATO.” However, no specific date or action plan was mentioned in the declaration. The delay in the invitation has been due to several factors, including rule of law issues, stability, and military capabilities, as well as the potential reaction of Moscow; however, Georgia has a proven track record on addressing these issues and offering strategic economic and military optics that would greatly benefit NATO.
One reason why NATO members are reluctant to accept Georgia into the alliance is the issue of rule of law. When NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg reaffirmed its commitment to Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations in February 2015, he stressed the need for continued progress in key areas of reform, particularly rule of law, including but not limited to freedom of speech and press, tackling institutional corruption, and transparency Over the past few years, Georgia has made credible and consistent progress in these areas and the European Union (E.U.) has been in the forefront of acknowledging this. E.U.’s Ambassador to Georgia, Janosh Herman, said on December 10 that, “Human Rights and rule of law stand as the top priority for the Georgian government and we [E.U.] are proud to cooperate with Georgia.” In that context, the ‘rule of law’ argument in deterring Georgia’s membership can be deemed invalid after NATO extended its invitation to Montenegro. The European Commission’s annual report on Montenegro illustrates the country’s ongoing corruption problem and recent pressure towards several media outlets under the Đukanović administration. This is by no means a claim that Montenegro is unfit for NATO membership — its commitment to effectively tackle rule of law issues should be commended, and it is certainly on the right track while a work in progress: as is the case with Georgia. It would be a double standard on NATO’s part to allow Montenegro membership while blocking Georgia on the premise of a challenge that both countries clearly share.
Another claim that deters Georgia’s membership is that it is seen as an unstable country. The 2008 Bucharest Summit decision promising Georgia’s eventual membership in NATO was delayed after the five day war, which ended with Russian troops occupying Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two of Georgia’s territories. Consequently, this five day war led to Russia’s recognition of both aforementioned regions as independent states and abolishment of diplomatic relations between Georgia and Russia. Today, Russian military forces’ frequent movement in Georgia’s internationally recognized territory poses continuing threats to Tbilisi. Moreover, Russia has not only maintained its military presence, but also is on track for what experts define as “a creeping annexation” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia through provision of welfare and citizenship to the two regions’ populations. Meanwhile, the new government of Georgia elected in 2012, while not officially restoring ties with Russia, has developed a less aggressive and more diplomatic approach than that of the former Saakashvili administration. Still, NATO member states are concerned that allowing Georgia membership under Russia’s continuing presence might cause a military stand-off and destabilize the region. This fear is clearly well-founded, and as a result, the Georgian government proposed a conditional agreement. The agreement calls for accepting Georgia into NATO with the exclusion of the two occupied territories from NATO’s Article 5 security guarantee until the matter is peacefully resolved. Suffice it to say that this should put to rest initial concerns about triggering further military conflict in the volatile regions.
An additional concern is the reaction of Russian to expanding NATO membership. Particularly for Europeans, an expansion could impact them economically. President Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, stated, “Moscow has always said that the continued expansion of NATO, of NATO military infrastructure in the East, cannot but lead to a response from the East—that is, from Russia.” Many European nations are highly dependent on Russian energy. In addition, Russia is also Europe’s largest trading and investment partner. It is important also to note that recent European sanctions on Russia because of the Ukrainian crisis only limit exports in low-level service and technological sectors, leaving much of the current Russo-European economic interaction intact. NATO’s invitation to Montenegro has not sparked such retaliation from Russia as of yet, suggesting that Russia is unlikely to take punitive measures should Georgia join NATO.
Georgia has achieved progress not only in implementing necessary reforms but, more importantly, advancing its defense capabilities to reach NATO standards. Georgia has contributed troop support for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the counter-terrorist maritime surveillance operation in the Mediterranean led by NATO member states. Georgia provided the largest troops per capita in Afghanistan through the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) mission, which concluded in January, 2015. Currently within the framework of RSM (Resolute Support Mission) in Afghanistan, Georgia ranks second (after the U.S.) in troop deployment.
These initiatives bring the NATO-Georgia relationship to a whole new level. Georgia’s defense transformation and interoperability with member states make it the most reliable NATO partner, and it has become part of the Enhanced Opportunities Partners’ group, which led to the opening of a Joint Training and Evaluation Center in Georgia that conducts international military exercises with NATO members and partner states. This is a step in the right direction for Georgia’s NATO aspirations. A recent statement from NATO reads, “Georgia’s relationship with the Alliance contains all the practical tools to prepare for eventual membership.” Furthermore, Georgian Minister on European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, David Bakradze, in his latest correspondence with the writers of this article, said that he has no doubt that Georgia’s democratic and defense reforms will translate into an eventual NATO membership.
By accepting Georgia into NATO, member states will gain a strategic upper hand in the region. Georgia’s geographic location is pivotal to the East-West transportation corridor, providing pipelines, fleets, railways, and highways to bring vital energy resources from Central Asia to the West. More than one million barrels of oil and oil products are transported through Georgia every day to the European market. Granted, there are alternate routes through Russia or Iran, neither of which are reliable partners. Member states can increase their energy security by accepting Georgia into NATO and subsequently supporting the eventual implementation of the ‘silk road’ from Central Asia to Europe.
Further stalling on membership consideration can only lead to increased skepticism towards NATO by the people of Georgia and its leaders. Not to mention, the unpredictable political atmosphere in the region reinforces that the need to take action is time-sensitive. It is imperative that NATO speeds up its initiative to include Georgia as a member state.
*About the authors:
Joseph Jorjoliani is the Young Ambassador of Georgia to the United States, serving a one-year term appointed by the Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs.
Hla Hpone “Jack” Myint is a Fellow at the Georgian Youth Network and an undergraduate researcher for Asian and Eurasian affairs in the Department of Political Science at Washington & Jefferson College.