Why NATO should double-down on Georgian membership

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

Georgian soldiers hold Georgian national flags as they take part in the memorial ceremony to pay tribute to Georgia's soldiers killed in the Russian-South Ossetian-Georgian armed conflict, marking the fourth anniversary of the armed conflict at the memorial cemetery in Tbilisi, Georgia 8 August 2012. [Zurab Kurtsikidze/EPA]

When NATO leaders meet in Brussels this week they should have Georgia on their minds, write Amanda Paul and Ana Andguladze.

Amanda Paul is a senior policy analyst at the European Policy Center. Ana Andguladze is a policy researcher at the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy.

Montenegro joined NATO last year. Macedonia, having resolved its name issue, is expected to join in 2019. But where does this leave Georgia which was promised membership at the Bucharest summit back in 2008?

Georgia has made as much if not more progress than the two Western Balkan states. It is a net contributor to transatlantic security. It has proved to be a steadfast partner of NATO, sharing common values and interests. It has contributed more to NATO missions than many existing members and also meets the Alliance’s defence spending target.

It has modernised its armed forces and improved interoperability with NATO forces. It is the largest per capita contributor to the NATO mission in Afghanistan and the only non-NATO country to join NATO’s rapid response team.

Since the last NATO summit, Georgia has become one of the Enhanced Opportunities Partners (EOP), which provides all of the privileges that Alliance members receive except for the collective security umbrella. No other aspirant country has so many initiatives with NATO as Georgia.

In any objective analysis, Georgia is a poster child for NATO enlargement. But of course, there is the question of how Georgia’s large neighbour to the East would react.

Although no one talks openly about it, the Russian factor hangs over every enlargement decision. Putin has demonised NATO and talked of Russia being encircled by a hegemonic West. This was used as an argument in Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine and also its support for the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region after the short war with Georgia in 2008.

Ten years since Bucharest Russia has transformed Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region into military outposts, used to project power and when necessary, instability across the region. Meanwhile, the Black Sea has become a launch pad for Russian adventurism into the Middle East, Eastern Mediterranean and Central Asia.

The Alliance should not give Putin veto power over a sovereign country’s decision on the vital issue of security. As NATO’s policy makes clear, the resolution of territorial disputes is a factor to be considered in evaluating a new member’s suitability, not a precondition.

One way to break the deadlock, recently proposed by Luke Coffey of the Heritage Foundation, would be for NATO to grant membership by temporarily excluding Abkhazia and South Ossetia from NATO’s Article 5 security guarantee. This might further freeze the conflict but one would hope that an eventual successor to Putin might be more forthcoming.

In addition, NATO should formally dispense with the membership action plan (MAP) which has become politicised. Not only is it outdated, Georgia’s continued failure to receive a MAP is used by Russia to undermine support for NATO in the country. Many countries have joined NATO without a MAP so it is not necessary.

The SGNP and ANP should be recognised as the primary tools for Georgian accession.  NATO should include Georgia in all new NATO and EU-NATO initiatives related to the Black Sea. It should invite Georgia to join the multinational battalion based in Poland. It should increase joint military exercises.

And it should establish in Georgia a ‘Black Sea NATO Centre of Excellence’ focused on improving cybersecurity resilience. Boosting its ability to coordinate strategic communication and counter hybrid threats are two key priorities.

While popular support for membership remains high at 65%, this could drop if Georgia remains indefinitely in NATO’s waiting room. This risks giving weight to the Russian narrative that the West does not want Georgia and harming the reform momentum.

Georgia has made enormous progress in the past decade. It has done everything NATO has asked and much more. It is as much a poster child for the EU’s neighbourhood policy as NATO. The prospect of Euro-Atlantic integration has been a crucial driving force in achieving reforms. From a European security perspective, strengthening the resilience of neighbours to enable them to withstand coercion from Russia is a key issue.

Divisions within NATO, the lack of a robust strategy towards Russia, and growing transatlantic tensions mean membership is not around the corner. Georgia will have to show strategic patience and perseverance.

Tbilisi should thus use to the maximum all the tools that NATO has put on the table and continue to push for more. Boosting practical cooperation in as many areas as possible will further transform the country’s military,  bolstering Georgia’s resilience and ability to defend itself.

NATO should understand, however, that its current policy of keeping Georgia in an ambiguous limbo undermines the alliance’s credibility and advances Moscow’s goals of discrediting liberal Euro-Atlantic values and establishing special zones of influence.

This is why NATO should keep Georgia on its mind this week.

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