Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 52

On March 13 the Georgian parliament approved unanimously in a 160-0 vote a declaration on the country’s aspirations to join NATO. The text was signed in the form of a memorandum by the leaders of all parties represented in parliament — the governing National Movement as well as the opposition New Right, Industrialists, Republican, and Conservative parties — and was also endorsed by otherwise affiliated or independent deputies before being put to the vote.

The document commits Georgia to:

– consolidate a stable liberal democracy;

– pursue foreign and defense policies focused on “participating in NATO-led peacekeeping and military operations to settle regional and international conflicts, as well as combating present-day challenges” such as those associated with terrorism;

– develop Georgia’s armed forces in accordance with NATO standards, through transparent budgetary financing; and

– demonstrate to the Caucasus and Black Sea countries [that is, primarily Russia] that Georgia’s aspiration to join NATO is a sovereign choice that will increase stability in the region.

The document is meant to underscore the national, above-party consensus on the goal of joining NATO, with all political forces, including the parliamentary opposition, sharing the responsibility to attain this goal. Non-parliamentary parties are invited to sign as well. Introducing the declaration to the parliament for voting, Speaker Nino Burjanadze noted that Georgia’s entire political spectrum is thereby “sending a message both to our friends and our ill-wishers. . . . This course provides the only guarantee of Georgia’s prosperity and security, [as] NATO is the only guarantor of stability and peace.”

By adopting such a declaration, Georgia is following the example set by the Baltic states (and emulated later by other NATO-aspirant countries), whose parliaments adopted similar declarations while these countries were candidates for NATO membership. Such documents serve not only to confirm the solidity and irreversibility of the national choice for the Alliance, but also as a political reference point in the annual parliamentary debates on budgetary allocations for military reforms to meet accession criteria.

While Georgia was bound to reach and pass this milestone on the road to NATO, two recent developments — one external, one internal — helped precipitate the parliament’s declaration. On February 6 Russia’s ambassador in Tbilisi, Vyacheslav Kovalenko, publicly called on Georgia to adopt a status of neutrality, further implying that Georgia might definitively lose Abkhazia and South Ossetia unless it desisted from its aspiration to join NATO.

On February 28, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov declared that the prospect of Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO “is unacceptable to Russia” (Interfax, February 6, 28). In immediate response, Georgian parliamentary leaders decided on March 1 to draft and adopt a declaration on the national interest of joining the Alliance. Kovalenko’s renewed warning on the day before the vote, that Georgia’s pursuit of NATO membership would “further increase the distance of Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s peoples from Tbilisi” (Vremya novostey, March 12) had no effect thanks to the Georgian national consensus on the issue.

On the internal political front, Moscow-orchestrated splinter groups — such as a recently created National Forum — redoubled their agitation in favor of “neutrality” for Georgia. Commenting on this idea, Burjanadze reminded the parliament in her introductory address that Georgia had proclaimed neutrality during its first period of independence (1918-20), “only to end up being annexed by another country” — Soviet Russia at that time. This argument, too, echoes that internalized by the three Baltic states, whose illusory neutrality during the 1930s led to the Soviet Russian occupation. During the Georgian parliament’s debate on the declaration, opposition parties made a point of distancing themselves from those marginal oppositionists outside parliament who call for neutrality.

Opinion surveys in Georgia show support for joining NATO in the range of 80% — a level exceeding the record-high support level in Romania prior to that country’s 2004 accession to the alliance.

Georgia’s political and military ties to NATO are developing rapidly, their pace set mainly by Georgia’s military reforms. These have led to the formation of two NATO-interoperable battalions, the ongoing transformation of the General Staff into a Joint Staff, evolution from a conscription-based to a contract-based army, and overall progress on the security-sector reforms envisaged by the NATO-Georgia Intensified Dialogue on Membership Issues.

In mid-February, a NATO assessment team in Georgia determined that the country was on track with those reforms overall. Following the team’s report, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer received Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on February 27 in Brussels and confirmed that Georgia “has performed well and is performing well,” although its “road to NATO may be a long and winding one.” The NATO leader was apparently differentiating between what should be the straight track of performance-based admission to NATO and what is in practice the tortuous road toward the ultimate political decision by the Alliance.

The Georgian parliament’s March 13 declaration comes in the wake of the executive branch decision to boost Georgia’s troop contributions to U.S.- and NATO-led operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The decision turns Georgia into a leading troop-contributor among coalition countries on a per capita basis (see EDM, March 12). Whether inadvertent or otherwise, the sequencing of the military decision and the political declaration suggests that performance comes before words in Georgia’s efforts to earn its place in NATO.

(Civil Georgia, The Messenger, Rustavi-2 and Imedi televisions, March 12, 13)