Four years ago, then–United States President Barack Obama famously stated that Georgia is not presently on the path to membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (Civil Georgia, March 27, 2014). Nevertheless, Tbilisi persisted in its efforts to maintain ever-closer relations with the transatlantic alliance (see EDM, March 11, 2016; July 18, 2016; August 1, 2016; February 7, 2017; May 9, 2018). And in the most recent NATO summit, held in Brussels, on July 11–12, Georgia remained an important issue not only in the final declaration, but also in the course of bilateral meetings and statements of the leaders of the Alliance.
The NATO summit did not “open the door” to Georgian membership—once again, the South Caucasus country did not receive a Membership Action Plan (MAP). But the outcome of the just-concluded top meeting of NATO leaders confirmed that Georgia remains an important partner, and the Allies still consider it an “Aspirant” deserving of respect for its reforms, democratic choice and active participation in international operations.
In the Brussels Summit Declaration, the heads of state and government of the 29 members of the North Atlantic Alliance reiterate the decision made at the 2008 Bucharest Summit that Georgia “will become a member of the Alliance, with MAP as an integral part of the process.” The Allied leaders also recognize “the significant progress on reforms which Georgia has made and must continue, which are helping Georgia, an aspirant country, progress in its preparations towards membership, and which strengthen Georgia’s defense and interoperability capabilities with the Alliance” (Nato.int, July 11).
The declaration further underscores that “Georgia’s relationship with the Alliance contains all the practical tools to prepare for eventual membership” and that the Alliance stands ready to enhance its support further, including in the areas of counter-mobility, training and exercises, and secure communications. “These efforts, along with Georgia’s participation in [European Union]-led operations, demonstrate Georgia’s commitment and capability to contribute to Euro-Atlantic security,” the document says, adding that NATO leaders “highly appreciate Georgia’s significant and steadfast contributions” to the NATO Response Force and the Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan. The NATO leaders also call on Moscow to reverse its recognition of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent “states.” And the Declaration reiterates the West’s expectation that Russia implement the EU-mediated August 12, 2008, ceasefire, “particularly the withdrawal of Russian forces from the territory of Georgia; to end its militarization of these regions; and to stop the construction of border-like obstacles” (Nato.int, July 11).
During the summit, US President Donald Trump held a brief meeting with Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili. Judging by the statement of the US leader during the subsequent press conference, he was satisfied with the conversation with his Georgian counterpart: “They [the Georgian side] left a very good impression. We listened to information about their situation. The situation connected with Georgia is complicated. At a certain point, they will join NATO, but not right now,” the US president told journalists (Civil Georgia, July 12).
Later, at a joint press conference with President Margvelashvili, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg mentioned, that in the past ten years since the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war, NATO’s relationship with Georgia became unique and increasingly close. “You are one of the Alliance’s most important operational partners. And a trusted friend. Our partnership makes NATO and Georgia safer and more secure. We are grateful for Georgia’s continuing contributions to our Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan. And [we] recognize the sacrifices the Georgian people have made for our shared security. We fully support Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. Georgia will become a member of NATO. Allied leaders reaffirmed this and we will continue to work with you to prepare for membership,” the representative head of the Alliance said (Nato.int, July 12).
Stoltenberg also confirmed Allied participation in next year’s NATO-Georgia exercise on Georgian territory. And he thanked Tbilisi for contributing to stability in the Black Sea “strategic region,” where Georgia and NATO are stepping up cooperation. “NATO supports Georgia’s territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders, which includes the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” he underlined. Finally, while alluding to the fevered discussions on “burden sharing” that preoccupied a significant portion of the summit, Stoltenberg took the opportunity to congratulate Georgia for its commitment to match the NATO guideline of spending 2 percent of its GDP on defense (Nato.int, July 12).
President Margvelashvili, in turn, thanked the secretary general for his efforts at advancing Georgia’s future in the transatlantic community. “Georgia contributes to Euro-Atlantic stability and is one of the major contributors to the Resolute Support Mission. My position, which many of our friends and allies share, is that the Georgian people will be quick to draw closer to the Alliance, taking into consideration their capabilities, dedication and shared burden,” he said (President.gov.ge, July 12).
As the former rector of the Georgian diplomatic academy, Iosif Tsintsadze, cautioned, however, “The statements of the US president, NATO secretary general and other Western leaders do not mean that Georgia will soon be admitted to NATO. They only confirm that the allies give Georgia a chance but not a guarantee! Much will depend on Georgia’s own actions” (Author’s interview, June 15).
Political scientist Tornike Sharashenidze, meanwhile, drew attention to the fact that, unlike during the 2014 Wales Summit (when Georgia received the Substantial NATO-Georgia Package and the NATO-Georgia Joint Training Center was opened outside Tbilisi), there was no significant decision made at the Brussels Summit for how the country might continue to move forward on NATO integration. “This is because our government did not work actively enough with its Western partners,” Sharashenidze asserted, in an interview with this author, on June 15.
Vakhtang Maisaia, a doctor of Military Sciences, based in Tbilisi, argued that Georgia is presently in the third stage of integration with NATO—so-called “intensive dialogue.” “The next stage is MAP, but our partners are not yet ready for such a radical step,” Maisaia said (Author’s interview, June 15). Political analyst Irakli Machavariani explained this caution within the Alliance as stemming from “the fear of some European states toward Russia” (Author’s interview, June 15).
Nevertheless, most Georgian experts are convinced that, even if Georgia does not receive a MAP or be allowed to join NATO in the near future, the process of constant interaction with the Alliance has a value all its own. Joint projects in defense and security, including military exercises, create some limited security guarantees for the country against further Russian aggression. The journey is, thus, as beneficial as the destination.