Differences have emerged within the Georgian leadership over the country's desire to expedite its accession to NATO.
Speaking in Tallinn on January 13, Georgian parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili warned
that failure to grant his country a Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the September 2014 NATO summit in Wales could undermine domestic political stability and substantiate the argument that Georgia has nothing to lose by resorting to force to bring the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia back under its control.
But Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili told journalists on January 16 that he disagreed
with Usupashvili's assessment. At the same time, Garibashvili stressed that Georgia's foreign-policy priorities remained unchanged. He expressed confidence that "if there is no MAP now, it will be late.... This will not pose a threat to and change our European integration."
Usupashvili further recalled the disappointment engendered by the decision at the April 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest not to grant Georgia a MAP. (The United States, Canada, and most East European states were in favor of awarding Georgia a MAP, but Germany, France and most other West European states were against.) In a nonbinding plebiscite just three months earlier, 61 percent of Georgian voters had affirmed their support
for NATO membership, which was one of the primary foreign-policy goals of then-President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Instead, the final Bucharest summit communique
affirmed that "NATO welcomes Ukraine's and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO. Both nations have made valuable contributions to Alliance operations. We welcome the democratic reforms in Ukraine and Georgia and look forward to free and fair parliamentary elections in Georgia in May. MAP is the next step for Ukraine and Georgia on their direct way to membership. Today we make clear that we support these countries' applications for MAP. Therefore we will now begin a period of intensive engagement with both at a high political level to address the questions still outstanding pertaining to their MAP applications."
Post-Soviet MAP Quest
Like most other former Soviet republics, Georgia had signed up in 1994 for NATO's Partnership for Peace program. In late 2004, it became the first country to formalize
an Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP). The IPAP required demonstrable progress not only in reforming the military to ensure Georgia's armed forces could fight shoulder to shoulder with troops from other NATO member states, but also in the sphere of human rights and ongoing democratization. Despite reservations in both areas
, Georgia was offered an Intensified Dialogue (the preliminary to a MAP) in 2006.
But in March 2008, just four months after Georgian police used brute force to disperse antigovernment protesters in Tbilisi, NATO's special representative for the South Caucasus, Robert Simmons, was quoted as saying Georgia had failed to meet some of the criteria for a MAP, and would thus not be offered one
at the Bucharest summit.
The Russian-Georgian War that followed Tbilisi's incautious attack on South Ossetia in early August 2008 effectively removed the issue from the agenda. Writing in "The Wall Street Journal" on August 18, 2008, U.S. expert Ronald Asmus predicted that "it will be years before Georgia again reaches NATO's current criteria for new members."
Mindful, however, of the threat Russia posed to Georgia, NATO nonetheless embarked in late 2008 on an intensive cooperation program intended to strengthen the Georgian military. A NATO-Georgia Commission was established and tasked with overseeing implementation of successive Annual National Programs intended as a substitute for a MAP. At NATO's Lisbon summit in 2010, participants reaffirmed the commitment enshrined in the Bucharest summit communique that Georgia would eventually join the alliance.
The Georgian Dream coalition that defeated Saakashvili's United National Movement (ENM) in the October 2012 parliamentary elections has repeatedly affirmed its unswerving commitment to the pro-Western, pro-NATO policy espoused by the previous regime. Then-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili affirmed on Georgian Armed Forces' Day (April 30) that Georgia should set the goal
of "at least" securing a MAP at the 2014 NATO summit. But both Defense Minister Irakli Alasania and Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Aleksi Petriashvili have warned that this is not a foregone conclusion.
But notwithstanding Georgian Dream's stated commitment to securing NATO membership, senior ENM members, and Saakashvili personally, continued during the early months of 2013 to impute to Ivanishvili's government the desire to turn the clock back by abandoning the previous pro-Western course in favor of closer relations with Russia.
That argument clearly cut little ice with NATO's leaders, however. Deputy Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow reportedly told Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio station on March 29 that NATO saw no difference
in the positions of Georgia's previous and new governments on Euro-Atlantic integration.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen for his part has twice lauded Georgia's progress toward meeting NATO membership requirements. Visiting Tbilisi in June 2013, he said
Georgia had "moved a lot closer to NATO" and "is on the right path" to "NATO's open door." "With consistent and determined efforts, you will reach your destination," Rasmussen continued.
Rasmussen noted in particular the resolution endorsed unanimously in March by parliament members from both Georgian Dream and the ENM upholding Georgia's pro-Western foreign policy orientation.
In his address to a session of the Georgia-NATO Commission in Brussels last month, Rasmussen similarly said
Georgia "has moved much closer to NATO," even though "there is still work to be done." He mentioned specifically "impressive" defense reforms and "a more mature democracy" as reflected in the "free and fair" presidential election in October 2013.
Usupashvili's argument that not granting Georgia a MAP this September could give rise to political instability is less than convincing insofar as support among the population at large for NATO membership is on the rise. Two recent opinion polls
registered 71 percent support in September 2013 (while Saakashvili was still president) and 81 percent support in November.
At the same time, it is understandable that Georgian Dream would like, first, to be seen to have succeeded in securing a MAP where the ENM failed, and second, to demonstrate once for all that Saakashvili's allegations that the ruling coalition is intent on a policy U-turn toward Russia are spurious.
There remain, however, several imponderables. It is highly likely that the ENM will continue to seize every opportunity to try to discredit Georgian Dream in the eyes of the international community. The ENM this week demanded the resignation of Sozar Subari, the minister for the penitentiary system, in connection with allegations by ENM Secretary-General Vano Merabishvili that he was taken secretly last month from his prison cell for a meeting with then-Prosecutor-General Otar Partskhaladze, who sought to pressure him
. According to public defender Ucha Nanuashvili, the ministry's probe into those allegations leaves some questions open.
Second, it remains unclear to what extent the Georgian Army as a whole meets NATO standards, as opposed to the battalions that have served since 2009 with the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan.
And third, NATO will have to weigh the advantages of granting Georgia a MAP against the inevitable negative reaction from Russia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated to the NATO-Russia Council last month Moscow's opposition to Georgia's accession to NATO. Lavrov argued that NATO enlargement is a holdover of Cold War thinking and "implies not only preserving the dividing lines which we have all committed to remove, but also implies moving [these lines] further to the east." "No one should take steps that pose a danger to partners' security," he added.
-- Liz Fuller