Speaking on June 25 at the NATO foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the organization's September summit in Wales will not address the question of granting Georgia a Membership Action Plan (MAP).
Instead, according to Rasmussen, in recognition of the progress Georgia has made towards meeting the criteria for membership, NATO will offer Georgia a "substantive package" of measures to strengthen cooperation.
Following a meeting with Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze the previous day, Rasmussen had stressed NATO's readiness "to support [and] assist Georgia in their ambitious defence reforms."
Rasmussen said the specifics of that package are to be hammered out in talks with Georgia over the next few months. But NATO Special Representative for the South Caucasus and Central Asia James Appathurai characterized it as "unprecedented" and "connecting Georgia to NATO more deeply and more substantially than it has ever been before -- and, I believe, more than any other non-NATO country."
That may be an overstatement, however: the Reuters news agency reported that the package could comprise closer political cooperation, training for the Georgian military, and beefing up the NATO liaison office in Tbilisi. Georgia's Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, Aleksi Petriashvili, told journalists that the latter proposal "is not really what the Georgian authorities aspire to."
Appathurai acknowledged that many people in Georgia will be disappointed that the long-hoped for MAP -- the last stage prior to a formal invitation to join the alliance – is not forthcoming. Neither he nor Rasmussen offered any explanation for the decision. According to unnamed NATO diplomats quoted by Reuters, up to a dozen of NATO's 28 members, including Germany and France, are opposed to granting Georgia a MAP. Another source reportedly estimated the split as 50:50.
Those diplomats explained that that some NATO members argue that offering Georgia an MAP at this stage would only serve to antagonize Russia, while others protest that Russia should not be a factor in any decision regarding NATO enlargement. Rasmussen appears to support the latter approach: he stressed that "NATO's door remains open and no third country has a veto over NATO enlargement." A related question is whether NATO could protect Georgia if it came under attack.
In the wake of the NATO-Georgia Commission session in Brussels on June 4, Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania said it was "clearly visible that the majority of our partners in NATO clearly voice that Georgia is ready for a MAP." Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, for his part, warned against creating "false expectations," as was the case in the months preceding the April 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest.
The Georgian authorities had pinned their hopes on securing a MAP on that occasion; some diplomats, as Appathurai noted this week, believe it was the alliance's failure to propose one that emboldened Russia to send troops into Georgia in August 2008 in response to the Georgian artillery attack on Tskhinvali, capital of the breakaway Republic of South Ossetia.
Georgian parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili predicted early this year that the failure to offer Georgia a MAP at the Wales summit could undermine domestic political stability and substantiate the argument that Georgia has nothing to lose by resorting to force to bring South Ossetia and Abkhazia back under its control.
The announcement earlier this week by Anatoly Bibilov that the newly-elected South Ossetian parliament of which he is speaker will start preparations for a referendum on whether the region should become part of the Russian Federation also lends force to that argument.
-- Liz Fuller