Georgia’s Road to West: from Tighter Cooperation to Consolidated Partnership
Since the very first year of its independence, Georgia has been struggling to establish itself as a modern, market-oriented democracy and to secure its territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders. Despite regime changes and volatile external security environment, Georgia’s foreign policy priorities have not changed substantially. Integration with NATO and EU remains the paramount foreign policy priority supported by majority of the population. Most Georgians also believe that active political dialogue and practical engagement with the West is crucial for facilitating democratization process in their country.
The signing of the Association Agreement (AA) not only brought Georgia closer to the EU, but reaffirmed its position as the “centre of gravity” for Western engagement in the South Caucasus given that Georgia’s neighbors – Azerbaijan and Armenia – are moving in different directions. As Georgia appears to be well fitted for Europeanization process, at the moment, it seems that Tbilisi’s main objectives should be closer association and visa free regime with EU, obtaining a Membership Action Plan (MAP) from NATO, as well as securing economic assistance from the West. However, given the challenges associated with Georgia’s political and economic development, ongoing tensions with Russia, and the serious obstacles stemming from within Europe itself – economic turmoil, enlargement fatigue, lack of strategic vision and leadership, – on its membership path to NATO and EU Georgia may face quite some challenges.
Consolidated Partnership with Eastern Europe needed
NATO and EU membership is viewed by Georgian population not only as a security guarantee, but also as a confirmation of belonging to the West. Nevertheless, it looks like that Eastern Partnership Summit planned in Riga, at the end of this May, will see the EU member states and the European Commission doing their utmost to avoid any mention of enlargement and keep it off the agenda. EU and NATO are structured in a way that all member states have an equal say in decision making or decision breaking. Unfortunately, in Georgian case, there has been very different degree of enthusiasm and level of engagement from the side of member states for supporting Georgia’s membership in both of these organisations. Even the position of the United States, previously the strongest voice for Georgian Euro-Atlantic aspiration, has altered considerably during the Obama administration. As a result, while the NATO’s door for Georgian membership has been kept open rhetorically, in practice, its membership has been put on hold. What should be the new policy from Tbilisi to change status quo and change the perception that it remains a lonely bastion of Western-style modernity in the South Caucasus? So far, no
clear long-term strategy and interim goals have been defined, and the Georgian political class needs to do some catching up in this respect, keeping in mind current and emerging security challenges in the region.
Meanwhile, as integration into NATO and the EU is considered to be essential for strengthening Georgia’s security and ensuring its stable development, events in Ukraine remain to be among top security concerns for Georgia. With a tradition of friendly and strategic relations between Tbilisi and Kyiv, Georgia needs backing Ukrainian sovereignty not only by diplomatic statements, but also deeds. Moreover, as Moscow’s policies vis-à-vis Ukraine increased the Eastern European states’ traditional security concerns and catalyzed their interest towards more active involvement in EaP, cementing a close partnership with Eastern European states becomes essential. More than most EU members, the eastern European states have a vision of a wider, more robust and open Europe. They also have shared visions and aspirations regarding democratization of Eastern Partnership Countries. While their foreign policy and interests might differ significantly in details, they share an attitude of support and camaraderie toward Georgia and other neighbors like Ukraine and Moldova. Taking this into account, Tbilisi needs not only further securing of such a strong support from its close partners (USA, Central European and Baltic countries), but also overcoming the reluctance of other “Georgia skeptic” member states who seem content with the Alliance’s existing composition.
Boosting of Diplomatic Efforts to overcome Skepticism on Georgia’s NATO Membership is Essential
According to many experts, during recent years Georgia has paid too much attention to relations with the United States, but has not worked enough on building ties with its European partners. Example of Swedish and Polish support in establishment of Eastern Partnership has shown that continuous support from European countries on Georgia’s path to NATO and EU integration was and remains vital. Despite the fact that membership in the EaP did not contain any promise of eventual EU membership, it played an important role in consolidating the pro-European foreign policy of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Although, after change of government in Sweden it’s not crystal clear if the new government will continue the policy of strong support for Georgia, but the fact is that Georgia needs to engage other EU partners to succeed in its quest towards deeper integration with Euro-Atlantic community. As Georgia still enjoys strong support from Eastern European nations, overdependence and misuse of their solidarity must be avoided. Georgia should invest significant efforts to transform its relations and deep partnership with “old European” nations. While for understandable reasons it’s clearly not an easy task for Georgian diplomacy, diversification of political support and reaching the Western Europe is very much needed.
Tbilisi especially needs to work closely with German government, parliament, think tank community and academia to overcome “Berlin Wall” which remains the strongest impediment towards MAP or any deeper integration with NATO. Despite promising membership to Georgia at the NATO Bucharest Summit in 2008, Germany, France and few other allies still hesitate to really back Georgian membership. One of the principal objections to NATO membership is that country cannot be defended in the event of another Russian aggression, and, therefore, the extension of NATO Article 5 protection to Georgia carries unacceptable risk. Many European nations also cannot ignore Russia due to its large and lucrative market. All abovementioned factors create challenges for Georgian diplomacy and require urgent engagement with European partners.
Against this backdrop, and taking into account the robust German mediation during the Ukrainian crisis, Georgia needs closer engagement with Berlin. One should not neglect the fact that Germany has recently obtained persuasive power in Europe and is able to sway undecided countries when it comes to issue like the current situation in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Some Georgian and foreign analysts even think that potentially Germany could join the United States in supporting Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. There is a hope that eventually, Berlin may see in Kyiv, Tbilisi, and Chisinau its strategic allies for the decades to come. After initial reluctance, the same happened in regards with the Baltic states, when they were decoupled from the “post-Soviet” framework and put on the path of swift integration into EU and NATO. While such a development is very desirable for Georgia, it’s not clear that Germany would be prepared any time soon to wholeheartedly back Georgia’s NATO bid.
Whatever the chances are, having a comprehensive cooperation package with allies and among them Germany, including reform efforts, institution-building, training and establishment of NATO training center, is the way to go. Georgia needs to continue pursuing wide-ranging reforms (democratic institution building, electoral reforms and media liberalization, judicial, defense and security sector reforms) to increase its chances for further integration and eventual NATO membership. If Georgia continues further the process of vigorous democratic reformation, the western support for its transformation into a stable Eastern European democracy and NATO and EU integration will grow gradually as well.
 According to a survey by the US International Republican Institute (IRI) in February of 2015, support for Georgia’s EU and NATO integration remains strong, at 85 percent and 78 percent respectively. See: http://www.iri.org/sites/default/files/fields/field_files_attached/resource/iri_georgia_public_2015_final_0.pdf