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Why Georgia Dare Not Risk Declaring Neutrality

  • Ghia Nodia

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer at a meeting with university students in Tbilisi in September.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer at a meeting with university students in Tbilisi in September.

Georgian political parties find it very difficult to agree on anything, but at least there was one point of consensus among almost all parties that mattered: They supported membership of NATO and the European Union.

In 2006, all parliamentary parties signed a declaration stating that despite many differences, they stand united on this issue. In the January 2008 presidential elections, Irina Sarishvili was the only openly pro-Russian candidate who also opposed Georgia's bid for NATO membership. She received just 0.16 percent of the vote.

The elite consensus was matched by public opinion. In a nonbinding referendum held concurrently with the 2008 presidential ballot, 77 percent of those who voted were in favor of Georgia joining NATO. Numerous opinion polls continue to demonstrate Georgians' strong support for both NATO and EU membership.

In the aftermath of the August war with Russia, however, signs appeared that the national consensus was crumbling. While the government and President Mikheil Saakashvili remain committed to staying the course, there is no longer any similar unity within the opposition. Even so, most opposition parties, including the parliamentary opposition and the parties aligned in former Ambassador to the UN Irakli Alasania's Alliance for Georgia, advocate a stable pro-Western course.

The 'Neutrality' Option

So far, nobody has advocated joining any alternative military bloc: the preferred concept of those opposed to NATO membership is "neutrality."

The populist Labor party was the first major party to subscribe to that concept, and its leader, Shalva Natelashvili, reiterates in his numerous public appearances that Georgia should neither join NATO nor rejoin the Commonwealth of Independent States (which it quit last fall to protest Russia's formal recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia), but remain apart. Natelashvili presents "neutrality" as genuine independence, arguing that Georgia needs a government that will be appointed neither in Moscow nor in Washington.

For Georgia, "neutrality" would entail relinquishing the support of the West and leaving itself at Russia's mercy.
A diverse group of radical opposition parties prefers to avoid discussion of the NATO issue, possibly because their positions differ. But some have hinted they may be ready to renounce their earlier commitment to NATO membership.

While it is still too early to worry about Georgia changing course, now is a good time to ask: What does the slogan "neutral Georgia" mean in practice? What could it bring the country? Historically, neutrality makes sense when a country finds itself between hostile neighbors.

In addition, there should be at least tacit agreement between the adversaries that neutrality of the non-aligned state will be respected. In the absence of such preconditions, neutrality amounts to no more than a kind of self-isolation, a refusal to participate in international mechanisms for integration and cooperation. Look at neutral Turkmenistan. In the Georgian case, the concept of neutrality tacitly implies that the Cold War continues, and that Russia and the West still constitute two hostile blocs.

Lessons Of The Past

But today the Cold War seems to persist only in the minds of the current Russian leadership, even though they do not consistently express or act on that assumption. Most Western leaders prefer to see Russia as a prickly and difficult partner but a partner nonetheless, not an open adversary. In that context, to designate Georgia "neutral" simply means endorsing Russia's worldview and yielding to Russian pressure. No wonder that in Georgia, support for "neutrality" is a codeword for being pro-Russian.

Some Western observers might consider the prospect of Georgian neutrality as tantamount to "Finlandization." During the Cold War, Finland was not part of the security framework of the West and did not dare to challenge the Soviet Union. But at the same time, it was a Western-style democracy with a market economy. There were some effective limitations on the mass media and freedom of speech, in terms of limiting criticism of the Soviet Union. But overall, Finland was considered part of the West in terms of its internal institutions and civilization. Why should Georgians not agree to a deal like this?

The Finns themselves were not happy about being "Finlandized," in fact they hated the term. But even if we assume that their Cold War status was second best, but still more or less acceptable, that does not mean that the same would hold true for Georgia.

For Georgia, embracing neutrality would expose it to two distinct intrinsic threats, one related to security, and the second to development. Geographically, Georgia is not located between hostile neighbors the way Finland or Switzerland is. It lies within a region that, if everything is left to the forces of geopolitics, will inevitably be dominated by Russia. Russia does not hide the fact that it considers the Caucasus, and Georgia in particular, as its own backyard.

For Georgia, "neutrality" would entail relinquishing the support of the West and leaving itself at Russia's mercy. If Georgia were to opt for neutrality, Russia would not accept that status as necessitating respect for Georgia's genuine sovereignty in non-military matters: on the contrary, Russia would interpret that decision as a successful step towards squeezing the West out of Georgia and restoring Georgia to its rightful status of Russian satellite.

No less important is the issue of development, or the general direction of the country. Nobody, including Russia, failed to recognize Finland as part of Western civilization. For that reason, Russia did accept the Finlandization deal whereby Finland remained part of Europe in everything save for security arrangements. Not so in the Georgian case.

Reference Point

For Georgia, the quest to join NATO is not only about security but about identity and the general reference point for the country's development. The primary problem in NATO-Russia relations is not security interests but the divergence in values: Russians perceive NATO as a threat because it embodies values that are dangerous for maintaining Russia's political regime as it is. NATO is dangerous as a source of contagion. But equally, Russia is a danger to its neighbors.

Georgia's democratic institutions may be imperfect, but at least all major actors consider European-style democracy the only reference point for the country's development. Commitment to integration into NATO and EU is inseparably linked to the commitment to democratic values.

It is feared that the crumbling of the pro-NATO consensus might also imply the disintegration of the pro-democracy consensus. As democratic institutions have still to be consolidated in Georgia, the charms of Russian-style "sovereign democracy" (that is, autocracy) may prove attractive to some political actors.

It is not only democracy that is contagious. When it comes to values, it is hard to find a worse policy than neutrality.

Ghia Nodia is professor of politics at Ilia Chavchavadze State University. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL