NATO and Georgia: Seeking membership, getting partnership

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Europe and the US do not share today a solid Euro-Atlantic identity, the West having become an alliance with a fuzzy identity, writes David Usupashvili.

David Usupashvili  is Chairman of the Georgian Parliament

“What is Georgia's future relationship with NATO – a member of the Euro-Atlantic community or a simple partner? It's a question Georgia and NATO must consider before the Alliance's summit this year, and as Georgia weighs ties with its neighbors – Russia, Turkey and Iran. The South Caucasus is an uncomfortable place right now, part buffer zone, part fault line, even a frontline. Russian barbed wire runs through my country; an East-West cleavage has survived the Cold War in this region and elsewhere along the Russian periphery, as the terrible events in Ukraine show. What further assurances can Georgia get from NATO, if any at all?

Russia still views my country as part of ‘’Trans-Caucasus,’’ that is, part of the Russian/Soviet Empire located beyond the Caucasian mountain range. These perceptions die hard and are still a decisive factor in the minds of Russian elites. Yet, given that 20% of Georgian sovereign territory is Russian-occupied – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – Georgians are not likely to embrace this identity with any enthusiasm. Most recently, Georgia underlined its lack of enthusiasm with a “Trans-Caucasus community” by opting for an EU Association Agreement over Russia's Eurasian Union trade zone. In the West, however, Georgia is only a partner, supported, financed, from time to time advocated, but not identified as a member of the community.

Both East and West want access to the Southern Caucasus, for very similar reasons. The South Caucasus is the only strategic corridor connecting NATO territory with Central Asia, Afghanistan and Iran; it is also Russia's glue, keeping its European and Far Eastern territories connected. Common objectives are not unthinkable. In the context of a "long war" against terrorism in which the Euro-Atlantic community and Moscow will presumably be engaged for the foreseeable future, the preservation of strategic access to the entire Caucasus is a common priority, for a common challenge: safety for legitimate flows of goods, people and energy; control over illicit flows, ranging from nuclear material to biological agents.

Hoping that multilateral institution-building can erase the threat of war, Georgia has embraced NATO's Partnership for Peace – of which Russia is also a member – and we seek full membership in NATO as well as the EU. Partnership is offered, membership denied. Still, Tbilisi pursues what is denied with a dependable willingness to transform, devoting the meagre resources it has, mobilizing the resources it can get, because of shared objectives and values, but also because the fear of a "prime-other" – Russia – is concrete, tangible and real. That is the bottom line.

But here's the rub: Europe and the US do not share today a solid Euro-Atlantic identity. The West is an alliance with a fuzzy identity. That is the main problem for Georgia and NATO: Tbilisi seeks identity, Brussels offers partnership.  Right now, after all, the Euro-Atlantic partnership is more of an alliance than a community. In the periphery of the periphery of the West, Georgia is hoping for safe mooring to an identity that is in question. On both shores of the Atlantic, willingness to take political risks in support of joint interests is called into question, time and again, as in the case of Ukraine. That is not, one hopes, the bottom line.

There should be a joint Euro-Atlantic interest in stabilizing the Caucasus, for trade and energy reasons. Perceived Western lack of interest could be dangerous, encouraging more Russian meddling, as occurred shortly before the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. Efforts by the Germans, among others, to improve relations with the Russians should not come at the cost of neglecting Georgia's security.

At the NATO summit in South Wales in September, Georgia hopes for a number of positive signals from the Alliance. First, renewed support for Georgia's territorial integrity and reference to the illegal occupation. Then a renewed commitment to Georgian NATO membership and accelerated efforts to get to the Membership Action Plan as a result of our democratic reforms, including free elections.

In any event, Georgia has no option for now but to remain on the same trajectory, seeking alliance when identification is not an offer. To do otherwise would run against our identity. It is not likely that Russian and Western common objectives will provide scope for an all-encompassing identity in the near future; it is not likely Russia will allow breathing space around the "Trans-Caucasus community". We are too near, even if abroad.

So, Georgia must seek identification with the West. We have made our choice. If that fails, Georgia will have to think the unthinkable and dare to define its existence as a bridge between alliances and communities rather than an enclave or a no-man's land. Otherwise Georgia and the generation that has built Georgia will have failed. That is an existential threat, tangible and real, even if peripheral. Our options are limited.”

Subscribe to our newsletters