French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian visited Georgia on September 10-13 for talks on boosting the defenses of the country aspiring to join NATO. «Georgia has a mission to join the Alliance», Le Drian told reporters. Tbilisi last year signed a $10-million deal with France to acquire Crotale Mk3 short-range air defense missile systems. This is a lucrative deal for France and a great expenditure for Georgia buying the weapons from NATO members to prove its allegiance to the alliance.
At a summit in Bucharest in 2008, NATO leaders agreed that Georgia will one day become a member. Formally the alliance has never reversed the decision but in practice it has always refused to put the country on a formal membership path. On September 7-8, a delegation of the North Atlantic Council visited Georgia. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Tbilisi has great prospect for joining. In response, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili said that his country will continue its «consistent» reform efforts and «wait patiently» for the window of opportunity to become a member.
Tbilisi has made considerable efforts to comply with all prerequisites for membership. Georgia has actively participated in NATO operations since 1999. Its contingent in Afghanistan is the second largest after the United States with deployed 12,000 soldiers to the country since 2010. Its troops have been deployed alongside Western soldiers in Iraq, Kosovo, and most recently in the Central African Republic. Moreover, Tbilisi already meets the two percent of GDP defense-spending requirement; only five other NATO member countries have met that obligation. In 2015, NATO opened a training facility in Tbilisi, which was unofficially described as a base. Along with that, Georgia has started participating in the NATO Response Force – a rapid-response outfit; hosted the first NATO-Georgia military drills; and inaugurated a NATO–Georgia Joint Training and Evaluation Center just outside of Tbilisi.
To move closer to the coveted goal, Georgia is implementing the NATO-Georgia Substantial Package (SNGP) – a set of measures and initiatives aimed at strengthening Georgia’s defence capabilities and developing closer security cooperation and interoperability with NATO members. It was adopted during the NATO Wales Summit in 2014. The SNGP includes support of 13 different areas of defence and security related sectors. It involves strategic level advice and liaison, defence capacity building and training activities, multi-national exercises and enhanced interoperability opportunities. The Package is aimed at boosting the Georgia’s capability to act according to NATO plans when needed – something the country has been doing for so long.
Davit Usupashvili, the speaker of parliament representing the Republican Party, has proposed establishing a United States military base in Georgia before the country even becomes a member of NATO.
The multinational military exercise Agile Spirit with the participation of Georgian commandos, trained under NATO countries special program, was held on September 1-9 at Orpolo firing range in Samtskhe-Javakheti region of Georgia. The US Marine Corps and servicemen from the NATO member-states and partners – Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia and Ukraine, were among the participants. Heavy American Abrams tanks and seven-ton military trucks and artillery were delivered to Georgia by sea from Bulgaria specifically for these drills. It is not the first time when the main battle tank of the American army, which is considered to be one of the most heavy and powerful in the world, appears in the Caucasus. In May, it was used in the course of tripartite Georgian-American-British military exercises to train Georgian units of the NATO Response Force. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg himself observed the training event. «For NATO and NATO allies, it is important to have close contact with partner countries like Ukraine and Georgia – being non-NATO members but NATO partners – and to dialogue with them regarding our increased presence in the Black Sea», the NATO chief stated in an open provocation to Russia. It means Georgia will operate according to NATO plans in the region where tensions are running high and risk the lives of its servicemen without getting any closer to the membership it wants so much. As before, it will give and get nothing in return.
Indeed, the situation in the Black Sea is explosive. On September 7, an incident between the Navy P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft and a Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker in international airspace over the Black Sea. The two US planes approached the Russian border after turning off their transponders, a radar signal used by others to identify a plane’s location. The presence of the US spy planes in the area was highly provocative given that Russia had just begun a major war games exercise code-named «Caucasus 2016». That once again demonstrates how perilously close a military clash between the two nuclear-armed powers is. As a close NATO ally Georgia risks being dragged into a potential conflict and become a target for Russia’s retaliatory strike, if a push comes to shove, especially if the plans to build a NATO military facility on Georgian soil come true.
With all the efforts applied during more than 20 years, Georgia still has no prospects for joining the alliance. Tbilisi left NATO summits in 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016 empty handed. The NATO leadership has sung praises for the «achievements but it has never said Georgia has a definite timetable for becoming a full-fledged member. The hopes Tbilisi had cherished before the 2016 NATO Warsaw Summit (July 8-9) were dashed again.
Montenegro will officially become the alliance’s 29th member. This fact is shocking as the country is highly corrupt, has contributed the minimum to NATO missions, especially compared with Georgia, and has not matched the big structural defense reforms undertaken by Tbilisi.
Perpetual promises to incorporate Georgia into the alliance are starting to ring real hollow to result in frustration and fatigue. The same thing applies to the much awaited EU membership.
In 2014, the EU and Georgia signed the landmark Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) agreement supposed to be followed this summer by Brussels extending Georgia visa-free travel to EU countries. Germany, France and Italy have blocked this, even though the European Commission said that Georgia had met all the conditions. The long awaited visa-free travel regime with Europe's Schengen countries remains to be a far-fetched dream.
The EU countries are reluctant to promise even a perspective of membership to Georgia in a distant future, which is sad and irritating for Georgians, who are fully aware that some of the countries accepted as a members in the past were less prepared to membership and had less successes in transformation of the political and economic system in line with the EU criteria. The European Union is convulsed with its own problems, such as a refugee crisis, sluggish growth, and a possible British withdrawal from the EU.
Combined with dithering by NATO and the EU, disenchantment with the West is growing as it has failed to live up to its end of the deal. It’s clear that it seeks to form the highest of relations without membership. The frustration is widespread.
It is a mistake to assume that Georgians have no other options but to stay on a Western-oriented path. There are more and more voices who say Georgia should cut its losses and seek rapprochement with Moscow instead. Opinion polls conducted by the National Democratic Institute show steady growth in support for Georgia joining the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) – up to 20 percent in March 2016 from 11 percent in August 2013.
The trend of more Georgians supporting closer ties with Russia makes perfect sense. Many Georgian businesses and families economically depend on their northern neighbor. Russia is one of the top destinations for Georgian agricultural produce, wine and mineral water. More and more people realize that probably see affiliation with the EEU could do more to create jobs and put money into the pockets of ordinary people. For example, reopening trade with Russia in 2013 gave Georgian agriculture its greatest boost in years. Trade is growing and Russian tourists are flocking to Georgia. Joining Europe seems is more like a pipe dream, while the EEU could probably be negotiated tomorrow.
Political forces that stand for more balanced foreign policy have a good chance of winning seats the Georgian parliament in an election to take place on October 8. Nino Burjanadze, former chairperson of Georgian parliament and the current leader of Democratic Movement, which is campaigning on giving Georgia neutral «non-bloc status», said disillusionment with NATO membership was helping boost her support.
The politician visited Moscow for talks with Russian officials three times over the past year. Burjanadze believes that «the Georgian authorities and a significant part of the country's political elite act pursuant to the interests of NATO and the United States, instead of in Georgia's interests».
The continuing NATO orientation would raise tensions and prompt Moscow to respond by strengthening its military presence. Georgia will always be on the brink of military conflict receiving empty promises instead of full membership. The aspiration to join the EU is doomed. It’s like waiting for the cows to come home. Instead, developing ties with the EEU will bring immediate economic benefits, while more balanced policy in the field of security would enhance the nation’s security. There is still time for Georgian voters to think long and hard before making their choice and decide if they want to hold out for pie in the sky or reduce regional tensions and get real economic benefits instead.