Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 73

Recent, fairly common forecasts that Georgia was about to turn away from NATO in deference to Moscow are not being borne out. Russian pressures notwithstanding, Tbilisi continues its relationship with the Atlantic alliance with undiminished conviction. The premature forecasts appeared to take their cue from some official statements–including several by President Eduard Shevardnadze–which admitted the theoretical possibility of neutrality for Georgia in the future. Such a possibility had, however, always and as a matter of course been present in the spectrum of options under Tbilisi’s official consideration.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s political and military leaders clearly indicate a preference for the goal of “knocking at NATO’s door” by 2004–a goal which Shevardnadze first articulated more than a year ago and he and other top officials periodically reaffirm. The leadership has recently added clarity by specifying that the “knock” implies becoming officially a candidate for membership, as distinct from seeking an invitation to join at that stage. Georgia thus demonstrates its awareness that it has a long way to go before meeting the criteria even for candidate status.

It is now, with the support of NATO member countries, accelerating practical steps toward qualifying for that status. The United States and Turkey play the leading roles as supporting nations. Assistance programs are, as a rule, bilateral American-Georgian and Turkish-Georgian undertakings, rather than multilateral NATO efforts. Those programs focus on military reform and modernization and on creating a logistical infrastructure which could anchor Georgia to the alliance. Financing is provided for the most part by the United States and Turkey as nonreimbursable aid.

On March 20-21, General Carlton Fulford, deputy commander in chief of the U.S. European Command, visited Georgia. The commander in chief of U.S. Forces in Europe, General Joseph Ralston, visited on April 5-6. Both assessed the initial implementation of the military reform blueprint the U.S. European Command recently drew up for Georgia.

The reform envisages deep manpower cuts and the refashioning of the remaining ground troops into a mobile, combat-ready force. The army’s 11th brigade based in Koda has been selected for priority access to scarce resources in order to be turned into a rapid-deployment unit, trained and equipped in accordance with NATO standards.

Ralston awarded NATO distinctions to five Georgian officers for their performance with the allied forces in Kosovo. Georgia, like Azerbaijan, has contributed a platoon as part of the Turkish contingent in the Kosovo peacekeeping operation under NATO command. That platoon’s servicemen have been periodically rotated and have gone on to serve as instructors to Georgian troops at home.

Fulford and Ralston also looked into preparations for the first large-scale NATO exercise to be hosted by Georgia. Scheduled to be held in June at the testing grounds outside the Black Sea city of Poti, the exercise will involve thousands of troops and sizeable naval and aviation forces from NATO member and partner countries, and will include some real-combat situations.

Georgia’s defense minister, Lieutenant-General Davit Tevzadze–a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth–recently paid an extensive visit to the United States. His discussions at the Pentagon and the National Security Council focused on Georgia’s military reforms and defense posture. American military assistance to Georgia has until now focused on equipping the border troops and coastal guard, so as to ensure the country’s immunity from intrusion. At present, U.S. assistance is shifting the focus toward army modernization. The next step envisages the formation of a group of NATO countries to join the United States and Turkey in providing military assistance to Georgia.

For now, Turkey is the first NATO country to have established a military toehold in Georgia. Under a recently signed, five-year agreement, Turkish planes will enjoy gratis use of the Marneuli military airport, located some thirty kilometers east of Tbilisi in an Azeri-inhabited district. The airport has recently been modernized and extended with Turkish military funds by Turkish air force engineers. A small number of Turkish military technicians are stationed permanently there to service the airport and the flights of Turkish and allied planes. The airport will serve as a logistical hub for military assistance to Georgia. Marneuli remains, however, under fully sovereign Georgian control and is slated to serve as the main Georgian air base.

Georgian-Turkish military programs are moving ahead under the annual plan for 2001, recently signed by the Defense Ministries. This covers activities of land forces, border troops and internal affairs troops, logistical and communications services, and exchanges at General Staff level and Turkish training of Georgian officers and cadets.

There is no shortage in Tbilisi of political will to implement these programs. The one daunting obstacle is financial, and stems largely from Georgia’s chronic shortfalls on tax collection, which affect all budgetary expenditures–including defense. Current funding levels tend to fall short of even subsistence requirements for the troops. The military reform’s initial stage, focusing as it does on deep cuts in manpower, should temporarily alleviate the financial crisis and improve the morale of remaining troops. But funding needs are bound to grow once the focus of reform shifts to modernization. That prospect highlights the correlation between military and economic reform. The Georgian leadership’s statements show its awareness that failure to move rapidly forward on the economic front would inevitably impede the military effort.

Russian intimidation tactics constitute the one major external obstacle on Georgia’s path to NATO. Thus far, those tactics have not worked as desired, even though the Clinton State Department spoke too little and too late against Moscow’s bullying of Georgia. The Pentagon, however, during the same period laid the basis for Georgia’s military modernization and cooperation with NATO. The Bush administration has recently spoken up forcefully in response to Russian economic and political pressures on Georgia. That response should create a favorable external political context for continued progress on military relations and an incremental anchoring of Georgia into Western security structures. That goal can be pursued–as some of the earlier steps in Ukraine tentatively suggest–through programs tailored to the country’s specific needs at a given stage, short of early or formal commitments to accession (Roundup based on reporting by Prime-News, Black Sea Press, Kavkasia Press, Anatolia News Agency, late March-early April 2001; see the Monitor, February 1, 13).