Secretary General’s Visit Rekindles Hopes in Tbilisi

By David Iberi

On October 1, 2010, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO Secretary General, paid a one-day visit to Georgia. He met with President Mikheil Saakashvili, Foreign Minister Gregory Vashadze, ministers of defense and Euro-Atlantic integration and opened a NATO liaison office in Tbilisi.

Rasmussen expressed a hope that the upcoming NATO summit in Lisbon will reiterate the pledge the Alliance made more than two years ago that “Georgia will become a member of NATO,” cautiously adding though, “after it meets all necessary criteria.” Although he called on Moscow to fully implement the provisions of the August 2008 ceasefire agreement, Rasmussen was prompt to note that “it was his clear intention” to improve ties between NATO and Russia, leading to strategic partnership. “If we succeed in developing strategic partnership between NATO and Russia,” the secretary general said, “then it will also improve Georgia’s security situation.”

Despite a set of almost unbearable punitive measures that Moscow started to impose on Tbilisi ever since Georgia decided to join NATO after the 2003 Rose Revolution, and then the full-scale military invasion in 2008, President Saakashvili’s government shows no signs of succumbing to Russian pressure and abandoning its stubborn pro-Western course. Saakashvili characterized Rasmussen’s visit as “extremely important” and reiterated that the NATO membership remained “a top priority” for the Georgian government. “There is one thing Georgia can never compromise on – that’s the issue of freedom and freedom of choice,” the Georgian president said during his press conference with the NATO secretary general.

Almost simultaneously with Rasmussen’s visit, bad news came for Georgia from war-torn Afghanistan. A roadside bomb killed four Georgian soldiers from a 1,000-strong military contingent fighting alongside the Alliance forces in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. This heavy loss has underlined the magnitude of sacrifice Georgia makes as it advances along a tortuous path toward a Euro-Atlantic integration. Expressing his condolences, Rasmussen added, “I highly appreciate you dedication to our common security, which is a testimony of strong partnership between Georgia and NATO.”

On October 6, there will be yet another test for Georgia, as its delegation, headed by Prime Minister Nika Gilauri and First Deputy Foreign Minister Giorgi Bokeria, will hold several important meetings in Washington with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other top-level U.S. officials within the framework of the U.S.-Georgia Charter on Strategic Partnership – a document aimed at deepening “friendship and partnership” between the two countries.

Analysts in Tbilisi believe that the atmospherics at the meetings as well as the concrete plans that will be designed for the future will portray how much the United States is dedicated to a secure and democratic Georgia that is fully integrated in Western institutions. As the United States seeks to reset relations with Russia – and now NATO appears to have started just the same – amid fears of the Iranian nuclear program and other outstanding threats such as international terrorism, a level of dedication toward a small country in the European periphery will showcase if Washington is really serious about not sacrificing Georgia for improved relations with Moscow.