NATO Decisions Give Fresh Air to Georgia’s Pro-Western Reformists

By David Iberi

On November 19-20, 2010, the heads of state and government of NATO member countries met in the Portuguese capital to discuss some of the most challenging issues the Western alliance is facing today, from the ongoing operations in Afghanistan to the collective missile defense system and uneasy relations with Russia.

For Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, who also attended the summit, this was an additional opportunity to hold meetings with and garner support from individual NATO leaders and engage in active discussions related to his country’s security problems and modernization reforms. While talks with British, Canadian, Dutch, Turkish, Polish, Romanian, Czech and several other leaders were important for Saakashvili, his bilateral meeting with the President of the United States, Barack Obama, undoubtedly was the highlight of his Lisbon trip. The language of the Lisbon Summit Declaration and of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly resolution on Georgia a few days earlier were likewise significant and, combined, they even triggered a reshuffle in the Saakashvili administration that will strengthen the positions of pro-Western reformists in Georgian society.

The read-out of the first time ever tête-à-tête meeting between Obama and Saakashvili published by the White House said that Obama “reaffirmed U.S. support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity…expressed his appreciation for Georgia’s significant contributions to the ISAF mission in Afghanistan…[and] discussed the Georgian government’s efforts to implement political, economic, and defense reforms and our shared interest in securing democracy, stability, and prosperity in Georgia.”

Obama’s meeting with Saakashvili on the sidelines of the NATO summit was more than a symbolic gesture and in sharp contrast to the arcane postulates propagated by individual authors, such as Walter Russell Mead from the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington-based influential think-tank, who have long written off Georgia as a factor in U.S. foreign policy and rejected Tbilisi’s NATO bid as pure utopia.

The account of the same meeting published by Tbilisi stated that the two leaders “focused on the strong and growing partnership between [the] two countries, based on [the] shared democratic values and strategic goals… under the auspices of the U.S.-Georgia Charter on Strategic Partnership…[and] discussed regional security, stressing the importance of dialogue and cooperation.” In addition, Saakashvili thanked Obama for America’s “steadfast support of Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity… for affirming Georgia’s path toward eventual NATO membership… [and] for [Washington’s] generous financial aid package that helped Georgia in the past two years. Obama, for his part, “praised Georgia’s contributions to NATO’s ISAF mission in Afghanistan, where almost a thousand Georgian troops are serving…[and] commended Georgia’s reforms, [urging] the Georgian leadership to continue them.” President Obama also said the United States supports Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic and NATO aspirations.

The Lisbon Summit Declaration says that “Stability and successful political and economic reform in Georgia and Ukraine are important to Euro-Atlantic security. We will continue and develop the partnerships with these countries taking into account the Euro-Atlantic aspiration or orientation of each of the countries.” This actually means that the alliance has decoupled NATO-aspirant Georgia from Ukraine, whose leadership no longer sees NATO membership as a national priority, at least for the moment. To manifest the decoupling even further, a separate paragraph was introduced for Georgia that states that “at the 2008 Bucharest Summit we agreed that Georgia will become a member of NATO and we reaffirm all elements of that decision, as well as subsequent decisions.”

The declaration also reiterated NATO’s “continued support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia within its internationally recognized borders… [called] “on Russia to reverse its recognition of the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions of Georgia as independent states,” and urged Moscow “to meet its commitments with respect to Georgia, as mediated by the European Union on August 12 and September 8, 2008.

The language of the resolution on the situation in Georgia adopted by the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Warsaw, Poland on November 16, three days before the NATO summit, was even more favorable to Georgia. The document that very much resembles the Council of Europe’s several resolutions on Georgia in the aftermath of the Russian military aggression in 2008 openly calls the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia “occupied territories” and expresses concern over the “continuing failure by the Russian Federation to comply fully with the provisions of the EU-brokered Ceasefire Agreement, and particularly its failure to withdraw to the positions it held before the conflict.” Even more importantly, the Assembly urges Moscow “to reverse the results of…the ethnic cleansing” that was committed by Russia and its proxies in the occupied Georgian territories and “allow the safe and dignified return of all internally displaced persons to their homes.” Among other requests, the resolution also asks the NATO governments and parliaments “to reaffirm…the Bucharest Summit declaration that Georgia will become a member of NATO.”

Already in Lisbon, Saakashvili announced an important reshuffle in his administration. Giorgi Bokeria, one of the closest allies of the Georgian leader and, arguably, the single most influential catalyst of Georgia’s democratization and modernization, has become the assistant to the president for national security affairs and secretary of the National Security Council of Georgia.

Bokeria, who served as first deputy foreign minister prior to the recent appointment and years before was a member of Georgian Parliament, played a key role in many aspects of Georgia’s reforms. As a staunch trans-Atlanticist and a man who worked with the Liberty Institute, a powerful force behind the peaceful Rose Revolution in 2003, he has been one of the major targets of the pro-Russian forces in Georgia. Bokeria is believed to reinvigorate and consolidate Tbilisi’s pro-Western agenda, in which sovereignty issues are firmly anchored with the Euro-Atlantic integration and NATO membership, for the next several, crucial years before the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Analysts in Tbilisi foresee that the National Security Council will become a powerful decision-making body under his leadership.

It is no coincidence that this major change in the Saakashvili administration came during the Lisbon Summit. It is seen as a reward for the important diplomatic efforts behind Georgia’s latest successes as well as a sign that Tbilisi has no plans to succumb to Russian pressure and go back to Moscow’s sphere of influence where it belonged some seven years ago.