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Is NATO Ready for Georgia?

Americans warmly endorse Georgia’s NATO ambitions, others are sceptical.
By Nika Tarashvili
A week before the first summit of a 26-member NATO in Riga, Georgia has been buoyed by support from the US Senate for its NATO aspirations. But questions remain as to how ready Georgia is to join the alliance.



Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili has declared 2006 “the year of NATO” and promised that Georgia will join the alliance before his first term finishes at the end of 2008. Saakashvili said that progress towards membership was “irreversible” after Georgia was invited in September to move to the next phase of cooperation with NATO known as “intensified dialogue”.



On November 16, the US Senate gave Saakashvili a boost by unanimously passing a bill expressing support for the accession of Albania, Croatia, Georgia, and Macedonia into NATO. The bill says promises 20 million US dollars of aid for the four aspirants, half of which will go to Georgia.



“Potential NATO membership motivates emerging democracies to make important advances in areas such as the rule of law and civil society,” said Senator Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “A closer relationship with NATO will promote these values and contribute to our mutual security.”



The next day, a session of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, meeting in Canada, called on alliance member states and partners “to support fully Georgia's aspirations for Euro-Atlantic integration and its wish to move, in due course, to the next level of co-operation with NATO, namely the Membership Action Plan (MAP). ”



NATO expansion is not formally on the agenda at the November 28-29 summit in Riga, which will be dominated by NATO’s operations in Afghanistan and other issues. But the Georgian government has been encouraged by a statement by NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who said an “encouraging signal” would be given at the summit to the new aspirant countries.



Of the four countries mentioned by the Senate, Georgia is furthest back in the queue and can only hope that the Riga summit will bring it an invitation to begin a MAP that will lead towards eventual accession.



Many American experts and politicians are promoting Georgia’s NATO ambitions on the grounds that it will buttress Georgian democracy and strengthen NATO in the Black Sea region.



Ambasador David Smith, who is director of the Georgian Security Analysis Centre, said that Georgian accession would create an arc in the Black Sea region (with the potential of becoming a ring, if Ukraine also becomes a NATO member), which will bring stability both to the alliance itself and to the entire region.



Smith said that creating a ring of NATO Black Sea members would be able to fight international crime (illegal trade in drug, arms, trafficking, etc), as well as terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.



However, many European countries are more cautious, citing worries about how Russia and the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will react to potential Georgian membership of the alliance. At a recent European summit meeting in Finland with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, France’s president Jacques Chirac said that relations with Moscow were a higher priority than the issue of Georgian-Russian relations.



Russia has explicitly warned against the expansion of NATO, which it still regards with suspicion as an anti-Moscow alliance formed during the Cold War.



“NATO plans to enlarge, but we consider this to be a mistake, although we perceive it as a reality,” said Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in September. “In the era of global challenges, which we all face, instruments of the Cold War are no longer effective.”



For most Georgians, joining NATO means being protected from Russia. Opinion polls suggest that more than 70 per cent of Georgians support accession to NATO, with only a tiny number - around two per cent in one recent poll - against.



“For Georgia, NATO means alleviation of the threat coming from Russia,” said David Darchiashvili, executive director of the Open Society-Georgia Foundation. “After Georgia is admitted to NATO, the threat will be neutralised, as any threat to Georgia will be translated as a threat to the alliance. Also, accession to NATO will mean irreversibility of the course towards democratic development.”



However, much needs to change before Georgia actually qualifies for NATO membership.



De Hoop Scheffer has repeatedly said that “although the doors of the alliance are always open”, he could not predict when Georgia would be judged ready actually to pass through them. No timetable has been set.



With regard to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, de Hoop Scheffer, said that NATO must recognise Georgia’s territorial integrity and that “intensified dialogue (for Georgia) means everyday efforts to find ways for peaceful resolution of the conflicts”.



Some argue that Georgia’s drive towards NATO will only push the two breakaway territories further away and into the embrace of Russia.



Georgian experts respond that it is unacceptable to make peaceful resolution of the Abkhazia and South Ossetia conflicts a condition of Georgia’s NATO accession, as that is tantamount to giving Russia a veto on the process.



“While the conflicts may pose an obstacle to Georgia’s admission to the alliance, they are also a tool for Russia to obstruct Georgia’s integration into Euro-Atlantic structures,” said Temuri Yakobashvili, executive vice-president of the Georgia Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. He argued that if Russia tried to use this tool, it should trigger a “political decision in Brussels” to support Tbilisi.



“Statements that accession to NATO means a loss of the territories for Georgia are absolutely groundless, both politically and legally,” argued Darchiashvili. “NATO supports a peaceful resolution of the two problems. So accession to NATO will speed up the peaceful resolution of the problems.”



Another vital issue is how well equipped Georgia is technically to join NATO. A NATO evaluation mission made a cautious assessment of the state of the armed forces after visiting Georgia in March this year, saying that changes had evidently been made, but substantial reforms were still needed.



Military expert Vakhtang Kapanadze said progress had been made on institutional reforms and that the structure of the general staff was now in line with NATO standards. But he gave a downbeat assessment of the overall professionalism of the defense ministry. “They need professionally qualified staff with the appropriate military education, preferably from western military academies, and the military experience. But nowadays the ministry is mainly staffed by policemen,” he said.



Kapanadze said the other major issue was civilian control of the armed forces “expressed through control of the appointments of the staff to high military posts, control over expenses and the use of force”.



Nika Tarashvili is a correspondent for 24 Hours newspaper in Tbilisi.

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