Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 180

On September 26-27 in Tbilisi, NATO’s Secretary-General George Robertson made the point that issues of defense and security in the South Caucasus should not become objects of East-West political competition. Robertson cast regional security in the broader context of European security: “We realize that our security is inseparably linked. The more secure our neighbors are, the more secure we are…. European security first of all depends on how well our neighbors are protected,” he told a conference in Tbilisi on Regional Cooperation and Partnership with NATO. “Only those nations which connect to the wider world will prosper. Georgia has clearly understood this lesson.”

Within that context, Robertson observed that Georgia’s situation poses “a key test for broader European security.” Robertson’s discussions with Georgian leaders almost certainly focused on that challenge, which arises from Moscow’s attempts to tie the country to the former Soviet orbit. Those attempts take three forms: perpetuating the Russian military bases and troops in Georgia, supporting the Abkhaz and South Ossetian secession movements as instruments of pressure on Tbilisi, and opposing pipeline and other transit projects which would connect Europe directly with the Caspian Region across Georgia.

While deferring to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the European Union on those issues in general, NATO works with Georgia to accelerate the reform and modernization of the country’s military. The United States European Command has recently drawn up recommendations for those military reforms. Earlier this month the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Henry Shelton, discussed that plan with the political and military leaders in Tbilisi. The defense minister, Lieutenant-General Davit Tevzadze, termed those recommendations “a programmatic document for the Georgian army.”

In the backdrop to Robertson’s visit, an American-led military exercise went into its third week at the Krtsanisi training center outside Tbilisi. In that exercise, U.S. Green Berets are training Georgian, Azerbaijani and Armenian sappers in demining methods with the use of advanced American equipment. The unprecedented program marks a step toward a more regular presence of Western training missions in the South Caucasus. Capitalizing on Georgia’s good relations with both of those neighboring countries, the exercise brings together Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers for the first time since they fought a war against each other. By the same token, it encourages Armenia to explore the possibilities of security cooperation with its neighbors and with the West.

Concurrently, a group of ten NATO experts now in Tbilisi are drawing up plans for a major joint exercise, to be held next spring at the Gonio training range, not far from Batumi on the Black Sea coast. On September 29, Georgian and Turkish border troops are due to begin their first joint exercise. It will be held in the Akhaltsikhe (Georgia)-Fosor (Turkey) sector and will practice joint operations to detect and capture violators of the common border. Also this week, a Georgian platoon is being rotated as part of the Turkish contingent in the Kosovo peacekeeping operation under NATO command. At the departure ceremony, Tevzadze remarked that each successive Georgian platoon “goes to Kosovo as raw recruits and returns as well-trained soldiers.”

Tevzadze remarked, furthermore, that the political significance of these steps is perhaps even greater than their purely military significance. Cumulatively, these steps suggest that Georgia is working toward the goal–as President Eduard Shevardnadze has defined it–of “knocking at NATO’s door” by the end of Shevardnadze’s current term of office (NATO release, September 26; Prime-News, Black Sea Press, Tbilisi Radio, September 26, 27; see the Monitor, June 1, July 7, 31, September 15, 20; Fortnight in Review, July 26, September 22).

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