Georgia’s NATO wish is understandable, but difficult to grant

Servicemen of the Georgian peacekeeping force at the Tbilisi airport prior to leaving for Iraq in 2004. Source: Itar-Tass

Servicemen of the Georgian peacekeeping force at the Tbilisi airport prior to leaving for Iraq in 2004. Source: Itar-Tass

Much to Russia’s chagrin, Tbilisi is unlikely to abandon its aspirations to join the Western alliance regardless of whether it is Ivanishvili’s or Saakashvili’s protégé who win the presidential elections in October.

Georgia’s outgoing President Mikhail Saakashvili and Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili seem to be at each other’s throats most of the time. But, when it comes to campaigning for Georgia’s membership of NATO, these two high-powered political enemies band together to serenade the Alliance’s visiting officials.

Whether or not their collective wish is granted, however, will depend on whether Georgia can become a net contributor, in security terms, to the alliance. This would mean, among other things, settling its disputes with South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Five years ago, Russia put an end to Georgia’s efforts to establish control over these two breakaway republics by first driving Georgian forces away and then by recognizing them as independent states.

Or did it?

The answer to that question will in part depend on whether Georgia’s ongoing reforms eventually deliver a socio-economic miracle that would allow Tbilisi to woo the two breakaway republics back.

As miracles go, it would have to be quite a big one, tantalizing the secessionist republics with promises of generous aid, high-living standards and non-aggression guarantees until finally they succumb and agree to join some sort of confederacy of independent states.

Georgia would also probably have to secure Russia’s consent. While Moscow cannot seriously be expected to reverse its recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, it might eventually warm to the idea of a confederacy on the territory of the former Soviet Georgian republic – provided Tbilisi anchors itself to Moscow and abandons its NATO membership drive. 

This latter is, however, one of the few policy goals that Saakashvili – whose presidency ends this October – and Ivanishvili – who has promised to resign by 2014 – seem to share. (This could indicate that both have, privately, given up on what Tbilisi calls the reintegration of South Ossetia and Abkhazia into the Georgian state – even though neither will admit this publicly as that would be tantamount to political suicide). 

It would, therefore, be foolish to expect Tbilisi to abandon its aspirations to join the alliance regardless of whether it is Ivanishvili’s or Saakashvili’s protégé who win the presidential elections in October.

The question remains, however, as to whether NATO members would ultimately benefit from fulfilling the promise to accept Georgia at some unspecified point in future that they made during the alliance’s Bucharest summit in 2008.

A recent report by an Atlantic Council task force, entitled “Georgia in the West: a Policy Road Map to Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic Future,” contains a highly detailed and coherent argument in the public domain for Georgia’s integration into NATO and the European Union. According to this bipartisan American task force, co-chaired by US Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Lindsey Graham, Georgia matters to the West because of energy transit, the transport of NATO cargo to Afghanistan, and its “remarkable contributions to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, acting as if it were already an ally.”

Eloquently put.

But the reality is that both Georgia’s importance as a military transit country and as a participant in US-led military campaigns is in decline, as the United States and its NATO allies draw down from Afghanistan and Iraq.

As for Georgia’s role in energy transit, less than 1.5 percent of global oil supplies and less than 0.5 percent of the world’s gas supplies traverse this republic, at least that’s how it looked when I researched this issue around the time the Atlantic Council report came out.

Those keen to answer the question as to whether, if admitted to NATO, Georgia would be a net contributor or net consumer of collective security, should also try to factor in Russia’s potential to act as a spoiler if it becomes discontent with Georgia’s NATO membership.

They would also be well advised to refresh their memories of Georgia’s post-Soviet history, which includes botched attempts to quash separatism, civil war, a coup and a velvet revolution. In fact, Georgia is also yet to see its president replaced in legitimate elections.

In short, if NATO were to admit Georgia in the near future, the costs – that Georgia’s membership would impose on the alliance’s members – might well outweigh the benefits.

That said, Georgia’s aspirations to join NATO and seek associate membership in the European Union are, of course, understandable.

The country’s chances of developing as a viable independent state would improve, in my opinion, if it were to accede to organizations in which fair representation of smaller nations’ interests and the defence of their sovereignty have been institutionalized.

NATO arguably comes closest to being this kind of organization.

But one issue that any future head of the Georgian state will have to address is: How to accede to this alliance without alienating Georgia’s powerful northern neighbour. (Unless, of course, Russia suddenly decides it no longer wants to be an independent pole of power and chooses to align itself with the West. Although that is, to put it mildly, is even less likely than the aforementioned miraculous integration of South Ossetia and Abkhazia into Georgia.)

Normalizing relations with Russia, rather than haranguing it from public podiums, as Saakashvili has just done in his swan song at the United Nations, reaching some sort of settlement with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and managing democratic changes of power would all help turn Georgia into a net security contributor in the eyes of the North Atlantic movers and shakers who decide whether and when to set the date for the country’s admission into the alliance.

Simon Saradzhyan is a researcher at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center.

First published by RIA Novosti.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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