NATO will not compromise on its open-door policy under pressure from Russia, but prospective members like Georgia must make significant domestic reforms and resolve territorial disputes to join the club, a top alliance official said.
Javier Colomina, NATO’s special representative for the South Caucasus and Central Asia, said that Georgia needs to take steps now to prepare to join the alliance, even though membership may be off in the future.
“We know that right now is not the time for a breakthrough in the open-door policy. And I know the Georgian authorities know that, but they still need to be prepared, to fulfill all the reforms that are needed -- in electoral reform, judicial reform, security, etc.,” Colomina told RFE/RL in an interview.
The comments come as Russia is using a troop buildup near Ukraine to press a list of security demands from the United States and NATO, including guarantees Ukraine and Georgia will never join the alliance.
The United States and NATO on January 26 rejected Moscow's demand to permanently shut the door on the former Soviet states from ever joining the Western alliance. NATO also said allied deployments of troops and military equipment in Eastern Europe are not negotiable.
“We've been extremely clear with the Russians: We won't compromise on our basic principles. We won't compromise on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine or Georgia. I think it's 100 percent clear from NATO that we won't compromise on our open-door policy,” Colomina said.
Georgia aspires to join NATO and is one of the alliance’s closest partners, participating in drills and missions with allies. At the 2008 Bucharest summit, allies agreed that Georgia is eligible to become a NATO member, provided it meets all necessary requirements.
But Georgia faces significant domestic hurdles to join the alliance. Russia backs Georgia’s two separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in part to create frozen conflicts to block Georgia’s hopes for NATO membership.
“We believe that Georgia should continue on its Euro-Atlantic path, and whenever Georgia is ready to access NATO, it will do so, although I don't think there is a possibility to integrate just one part of Georgia,” Colomina said, referring to the territorial disputes.
“We believe that the territorial integrity of Georgia is a fundamental principle. And therefore we will press the Russians to withdraw their troops and at the same time continue to work as we are doing towards Georgia’s accession,” he added.
Meanwhile, Georgia has been plagued by political paralysis and escalating tensions between the ruling Georgian Dream party and the opposition since parliamentary elections in 2020.
The crisis has been exacerbated by the arrest last year of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, the founder of the main opposition United National Movement party.
Colomina said “probably” the biggest obstacle to advancing Georgia’s NATO prospects is the slow pace of reforms and a highly polarized domestic political climate.
“That is among the concerns of those within the alliance that might have a different view on an open door for Georgia,” he said. “2021 wasn't the best year in that sense.”
Nonetheless, Colomina said the military relationship between NATO and Georgian troops is “optimal,” pointing to joint drills and Georgia's contribution to some NATO operations.
“NATO and partners exercising within the partnership is not something that we do with every partner; it is something that we do very specifically with the partners that we believe are actually trained at the level to exercise with NATO directly. This alone is proof of how excellent the relationship is,” he said.