By MAYA WHITNEY
TBILISI, Georgia – It is more than 10 years since NATO promised Georgia and Ukraine an eventual spot in its collective defence club, but neither are members. The reason is not hard to divine. With the Russian occupation of territory in both countries, the NATO candidacy of either looks dicey at best.
However, Georgians continue to be optimistic about NATO, putting plenty of effort into their relationship with the alliance. For example, Georgia has exceeded its “Golf Club Fee” of 2% of GDP spending on defence and has improved its defence capabilities substantially. As observed on 29 March by one official at Georgia’s Foreign Ministry, Tbilisi does not want to burden NATO with its situation, but it nonetheless seeks to become “part of the most successful military alliance in history”.
NATO continues to provide political support for Georgia to “advance its preparations for membership”, as issued at its Wales and Warsaw summits of 2014 and 2016, respectively. And the allies NATO never fail to insist that Russia reverse its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia’s break-away autonomous regions heavily shored up with Russian “support” in the form of troops. Only three other countries recognise the two regions: Nauru, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
While NATO membership for Georgia is remote in terms of timing, it still remains a possibility due to that allied prospective offer of a decade ago, however vague the latter may be. But when it comes to Georgia’s prospects for EU membership, even that sliver of hope evaporates. The EU has never promised membership to Georgia, and not a few member states question whether the country should even be considered as part of geographic Europe.
That has done little to dent attitudes in Tbilisi where more European Union flags flap across the city than in most national capitals of the EU. Foreign Ministry officials point to numerous infrastructure projects funded by the EU and its “soft power” support and initiatives that bolster democracy in Georgia.
Yet Russia competes with its own version of soft power, especially regarding Georgia’s Russian-speaking citizens, though Moscow does itself no favours by its continuing acts of aggression toward the country. In February 2018, for example, three Georgians were kidnapped in South Ossetia of which two were shortly released but the third held longer and, unfortunately, returned to his family dead. While a Russian autopsy report claims the death was caused by heart attack, a subsequent Georgian autopsy revealed signs of torture and, even more recently, confirmed that the body was missing several organs.
Since that incident, Tbilisi has turned to the international community, asking them to respond to these Russia-sanctioned aggressions in Georgia’s breakaway regions, including the kidnapping incident. For its part, Georgia’s parliament said on 22 March it would “impose sanctions on those who perpetrated the death”.
This was accompanied by a resolution requesting the government to form a list of accused or related individual linked to crimes such as “murder, kidnapping, torture and inhumane treatment”.
At least Georgia’s bilateral partnerships with individual NATO members remain strong. Over half the allies (18) have bilateral relationships with Tbilisi, with that of the US among the most expansive, based on equipment provision, military training and helping Georgia shore up its territorial defence. The best Tbilisi can probably hope for is ever-closer partnerships with NATO and the EU, with the latter two offering everything short of actual membership. Whether such ties would be enough to deter Russia incursions onto Georgian soil proper is anyone’s guess: it would depend on who sits in the White House and Moscow’s perceptions of the US leader’s willingness to deploy force against force.