Focus on Black Sea, Caucasus highlights Georgia’s strategic importance

Georgian servicemen take part in the closing ceremony of the joint multinational military exercise 'Noble Partner 2020' at the military base of Vaziani, outside Tbilisi, Georgia, 18 September 2020. This year more than 2700 military servicemen from Georgia, USA, the UK, Poland and France participated in multinational training, according to the information of Georgia's Ministry of Defense. [Zurab Kurtsikidze/EPA/EFE]

This article is part of our special report EU ambitions unabated.

While Georgia’s normalisation with Russia is still in doubt because of the country’s breakaway regions, Georgia has embraced a pro-Western foreign policy, including plans to join the EU and NATO and deepening relations with the US.

“We have seen a new configuration of balance in our region, which shows that now, as never before, the Black Sea and the Caucasus are becoming more important in terms of security and should attract more attention from NATO,” Georgian President Salome Zourabishvili said during a recent visit to Brussels

After NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg met with Zourabishvili, he confirmed both had addressed the security situation in the Black Sea region and Russia’s continued military build-up.

Even though Georgia is unlikely to become a NATO member in the next few years, NATO officials repeatedly acknowledge the country’s efforts to remain the “model” partner of the military alliance, especially through its involvement in the NATO military and stabilisation missions.’

Stoltenberg stressed that there would be room for closer cooperation between NATO and Georgia, including the implementation of secure communications projects, continued support to the joint training and enhancing maritime support.

Georgia is currently the largest non-NATO contributor to the Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan with 871 soldiers. Georgian officials have explained that in the post-Soviet period, missions abroad have played the role of military academies for the army officers and personnel.

He also emphasised Georgia has to make sure to “continue implementing reforms” and “make sure that we have secure, democratic institutions”.

“We’re working together in this direction and the key task for Georgia is to continue implementing reforms as it moves towards NATO membership,” Stoltenberg said.

A recent poll by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) shows 80% of respondents support EU membership and 74% approve of the Georgian government’s goal to join NATO (up from 69%).

However, after Russia seized one-fifth of Georgia’s territory in August 2008 – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – this “frozen conflict” remains an obstacle to membership in both organisations.

ECHR verdict aftermath

In Brussels, Stoltenberg pointed towards a verdict by the European Court of Human Rights, who had recently declared Russia responsible for human rights violations, including loss of life, torture, disrespect of property and privacy occurring in Georgia’s occupied regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as it had effective control of the territories.

“This only strengthens our call for Russia to comply with international law and respect Georgia’s territorial integrity,” he said.

Experts, however, point out that the frozen conflicts are less of an issue for Georgia’s EU membership hopes than for its NATO aspirations.

“The focus for the EU is still about Georgia’s political stability, through strengthening global institutions for support to the economic development of the country and it has less to do with the conditionality around the breakaway regions,” Olesya Vartanyan, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for the South Caucasus region, told EURACTIV.

“In terms of the investment from the EU side, the bloc has been investing a lot in trying to find ways to build bridges between the conflict side,” Vartanyan said.

The ECHR ruling “clearly concludes” that Russia, “exercising effective control” over Abkhazia and Tskhinvali (South Ossetia) regions, “violated several provisions of the European Convention of Human Rights”, EU’s spokesperson for foreign affairs, Peter Stano, said over the weekend.

Georgian top officials have stated that the country’s victory in court is “historic and an enormous victory for the country”.

“What we need is more involvement from the EU in conflict resolution,” President Zourabishvili said after meeting with the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell in Brussels last week.

An EU statement issued after the meeting said the bloc is “fully committed to supporting conflict resolution, which also requires efforts to address the legacy of past conflicts, including through its engagement as co-chair in the Geneva International Discussions, the efforts of the EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus and the crisis in Georgia, and the crucial role played on the ground by the EU Monitoring mission”.

It also said the bloc’s “firmly supports the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally recognised borders”.

The EU’s unarmed civilian monitoring mission, dubbed EUMM, has been deployed since September 2008, following the EU-mediated Six Point Agreement that ended the August war and patrolling areas in adjacent Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but cannot enter those territories.

The EU statement also spoke about ‘achieving justice and accountability is an important part of conflict resolution and the EU calls upon the Russian Federation to ensure the proper follow-up of the ruling’.

“What’s important, and what the Georgian government might be seeing here, is that potentially, when there is a space to proceed with political processes around the breakaway regions, then that ruling can become one of the founding documents to proceed with attempts of restoring territorial integrity,” Vartanyan said.

Hope in new Biden administration

At the same time, the new US administration is expected to encourage Georgia’s further NATO integration.

“I know that President Biden strongly supports the transatlantic bond, and Georgia is part of that transatlantic bond,” Stoltenberg said in Brussels.

Last week, Antony Blinken, Biden’s pick for state secretary, reaffirmed his support for keeping the NATO’s door open for Georgia.

“If a country like Georgia is able to meet the requirements of membership and if it can contribute to our collective security, yes, the [NATO’s] door should remain open,” Blinken stated during US Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

Georgia would like the West to treat the status of its occupied territories in the same way as it does the issue of Ukraine’s Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014.

(Edited by Georgi Gotev)

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