It's now official: Georgia and Ukraine will not be granted Membership Action Plans (MAPs) at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels on December 2-3. After months of diplomatic pressure on its European allies, Washington finally decided to back down, probably having realized that resistance from some of the alliance's West European members, led by Germany and France, cannot be overcome at this point.
"I am pleased that reason has prevailed," Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told journalists triumphantly during his visit to Cuba last week. One day earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had said that "there does not need at this point in time to be any discussion of MAP," and that "Georgia and Ukraine are not ready for [NATO] membership."
Is NATO going back on the promise made at its Bucharest summit in April that Georgia and Ukraine will become NATO members sometime in the future? That is the impression one receives from the Russian press or from listening to comments by senior Russian politicians. But Rice also made clear on November 26 that the United States and its allies will remain true to the Bucharest Declaration, and that softening the MAP push does not mean a change in policy toward Georgia and Ukraine.
What, then, does it mean?
The most logical answer to this question is that by shelving the MAP debate, Washington is seeking to persuade both current and aspiring NATO members to concentrate on the ultimate goal as formulated in the Bucharest Declaration: NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. It is certainly not a coincidence that both Rice and her deputy, Daniel Fried, have repeatedly stressed that there are "other ways" to prepare countries for NATO membership.
"Rather than have a huge debate on MAP -- which is, after all, a secondary issue and is itself nothing but a mechanism to achieve an agreed aim -- we ought to concentrate on the areas where the alliance is already agreed, which is that these countries will join NATO," Fried said at a special briefing in Washington on November 25.
Fried also pointed out that the three former Eastern bloc states that joined NATO in the first round of post-1989 enlargement -- Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary -- did so without first having implemented a MAP.
'Rising From Its Knees'
So why are Russian politicians so visibly triumphant?
On the one hand, they are sending out a message -- primarily for internal consumption -- that Russia is "rising from its knees" after more than 15 years of weakness and that the world is finally beginning to respect it. And on the other hand, they are trying to serve notice to U.S. President-elect Barack Obama with regard to the Georgia crisis, signaling that they have no intention whatsoever of retreating from the South Caucasus.
Hardly anyone with even the slightest knowledge of current affairs still believes that the Russia-Georgia war in August was about South Ossetia, a territory of less than 4,000 square kilometers with a population of about 65,000. On the contrary, this was a broader signal, not only to Georgia but to all of its neighbors, that the Kremlin is serious about restoring its influence throughout the former USSR. It was a message that any former Soviet republic that turns its back on Moscow and chooses to join Western institutions will face serious problems.
And, finally, in Russia's mind, it was the best way to prevent or, at the very least, indefinitely postpone Georgia's admission into NATO.
There is little Georgia alone can do if Russia decides to step up the pressure, whether by manipulating energy supplies, imposing economic sanctions, or using naked military power. Without support from Europe and the United States, Georgia will never be able to consolidate either its far-from-perfect democracy or its sovereignty and will be doomed to become a Russian vassal again -- a status that it has been slowly but successfully moving away from since the Rose Revolution in November 2003.
So it's only understandable that integration into NATO and the European community is seen in Tbilisi not just as a way out of Georgia's centuries-long isolation, but also as a way to strengthen its security vis-a-vis Russia.
'Business As Usual'
So, how can the West help?
Some argue there aren't a lot of tools in the diplomatic tool kit to influence Moscow. The real problem, however, is that too many European governments are longing to get back to "business as usual" with Russia -- not just the traditionally Russia-friendly European left, led by Germany's Social Democrats, but also Europe's ruling conservative parties.
Under pressure mainly from Germany and the outgoing French presidency, the EU's Eastern European members decided to drop their objections to resuming talks on a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Moscow, even though Russia had not -- and still has not -- fully complied with the Georgia cease-fire agreement. Those Europeans, who cite heavy energy dependence on Russia as an excuse -- ignoring the fact that Russia is as dependent on the European Union as the EU is on Russia -- find it more convenient to place the greater share of blame for the August war on Georgia than to speak out against Russia.
Moscow needs to be confronted with some tough choices. It must be made clear to Russia that an ally of the West (and Russia certainly wants to be considered one) has to respect, if not share, the values the EU is built upon. It's the reaction of the West that will determine whether Russia stops bullying its neighbors or continues to pursue the strategy of creeping annexation toward the countries that happen to border it. It is extremely important to abandon the policy of appeasement that many European governments have been employing in their approach to Russia.
In an open letter to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, Polish President Lech Kaczynski wrote on November 27 that Georgia "is a test of whether we can prevent the rebirth of Russian imperialism."
One should add that it is also a test of whether NATO will give Russia a right to veto its decisions. That is something the alliance's foreign ministers should keep in mind during their meeting in Brussels.
Return To The Fold
Is there any chance that Georgian-Russian relations could improve in the foreseeable future? Yes, easily. Tbilisi could thoroughly reconsider its foreign policy, abandon its stated goal of joining NATO and the EU, and declare Moscow its most important strategic partner.
In other words, return to the Russian fold.
Is that a likely scenario under the current leaders in either country? Certainly not.
Therefore, the best way for the tandem of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, which thanks to the recent constitutional changes seems to have secured its place in the Kremlin for at least the next 15 years, to achieve its objective is to get rid of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and his entourage. Medvedev, Putin, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have all said on numerous occasions that Saakashvili's government "must go," and expressed the hope that the Georgian people "will soon elect better leaders." Given that the Georgian people elected a president as recently as last January, one can only guess what kind of "better leaders" the Kremlin has in mind.
Moscow now seems to be offering Georgia one last chance. During a recent visit to Armenia, Russia's former ambassador in Tbilisi, Vyacheslav Kovalenko, said, "Georgia is facing a historic choice: whether to continue confronting Russia or refine its foreign policy, taking into account that Russia does not approve its NATO aspirations." And he added, "Georgia's national interests need a serious shift toward a multivectoral policy in order to maintain equal relations with all countries."
It appears that Moscow has already decided how Georgia's national interests would best be served and is trying to portray Saakashvili as either too stupid or, at best, too capricious to realize that fact. So the only solution is to replace him with someone less capricious and, most importantly, better aware of his (or her) country's national interests.
David Kakabadze is director of RFE/RL's Georgian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL