Since the creation of NATO in 1949, its main power rests in Article 5, establishing collective defense. For member states, NATO ensures the security of Europe and Northern America. However, for a non-member state such as Georgia, what does NATO mean to Georgia and its citizens? Back in 1921, the Soviet Union annexed Georgia and took its independence for 70 years. Many former states occupied by the Soviet Union have been able to join NATO or the EU – but not Georgia or Ukraine. Meanwhile, the re-emergence of an aggressive Russia is a real existential threat towards Georgia, and NATO can provide a security shield against it. Being part of NATO means cooperation and integration in European and Atlantic states and open negotiations with Russia. If Georgia is a NATO member state, Putin will no longer be able to pressure Georgia. Georgia also remains important for Black Sea regional security, which is an important issue for NATO. Therefore, NATO is not just helpful for Georgia, but Georgia for NATO as well. Integration into NATO is not that easy for Georgia, which is still plagued by occupied territories and conflicts within its borders. However, there are always solutions if we research well. NATO’s open door in 2020 is the biggest chance for Georgia’s NATO membership since the Bucharest Summit in 2008, when Russia was afraid of losing control of Georgia and used armed forces against it. As NATO welcomes Georgia’s course towards democracy, human rights, international law, rule of law, and NATO itself, NATO’s open door policy in 2020 should be an opportunity for Georgia to get closer to the organization and ensure future membership.
By Tornike Tevdoradze
After World War II, on 4 April 1949, the Washington Treaty was signed by 12 European and American states, which created a security umbrella for the West.[i] One the one hand, NATO created a secure and democratic area, maintained the importance of international law, human rights, and rule of law, and has saved the lives of millions of people. On the other, the creation of NATO also led to the Cold War, with the Soviet Union creating the Warsaw Pact in response. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, there have been many debates on what NATO should or should not do. Over the past 30 years, NATO has taken on more responsibilities and widened its area of action, both through its enlargement policy and its expeditionary operations. Thus, instead of disappearing after the Cold War, NATO recreated itself as one of the most dynamic and effective alliances ever created. In addition, as Russia became the successor of the USSR, NATO has remained as the main power balancing Russia’s post-Soviet ambitions in the modern world.
Since gaining its independence after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Georgia has been trying to join NATO. Under the influence of Russia, Georgia has struggled for centuries as a hostage. Russia annexed Georgia in 1801, only to recover its independence in 1918 after the collapse of the Russian Empire. However, just three years later, in 1921, Georgia was re-conquered. It was not until 70 years later, in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union that Georgia finally gained its independence. For several years, Georgia has been trying to run out of Russian hands and find an alternative security hub in NATO. The closest point of convergence between NATO and Georgia was at the Bucharest Summit in 2008, where Allied leaders decided that Georgia and Ukraine would become full members of NATO and be given Membership Action Plans (MAP) soon. This decision was the reason Russia decided to occupy South Ossetia, complicating Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration, which has since complicated Georgia’s membership trajectory.[ii] Today, Georgia still has two occupied territories, and Russia remains aggressive and active in lines of conflict with Georgia to show international actors that Georgia still has huge problems and to warn them to keep away from Georgia.
Despite most of the population of Georgia having voted for integration in NATO, this situation makes it almost impossible for Georgia to be part of the organization. However, I argue that there is still hope for reaching Georgia’s goals. Georgia can be a member of the organization with an amended agreement on Articles 5 and 6, which will not cover occupied territories of Georgia or start a new step in negotiations with Russia.[iii] The main changes would be made in Article 6, which defines which territories Article 5 should cover. Article 6 has changed several times: after Algeria and Tunisia gained independence from France, there was no need to cover those territories. Most interestingly, Article 6 was brought forth in the dispute over the Falkland Islands, which belongs to the United Kingdom but is not covered by Article 5, since it covers territories only above the Tropic of Cancer.[iv] A similar angle on Article 6 could be the way forward for Georgia. However, it first needs support from the other side, i.e. NATO member states. Since Georgia has participated in NATO missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo, and it holds an important location in the Black Sea region, Georgia is an important state for NATO, and NATO should pay attention to it. Opponents of Georgia’s membership argue that Georgia should not be a member of NATO, because it is not ready for membership and its membership would bring NATO into conflict with Russia. However, there are two main arguments for its membership in addition to the great will of the Georgian population to integrate. First, Georgian membership would give NATO wider access to the organization in the Black Sea region. Secondly, it would balance Russian influence and flows from the Middle East. As NATO welcomes Georgia’s course towards democracy, human rights, international law, rule of law, and NATO itself, NATO’s open door policy in 2020 should be an opportunity for Georgia to get closer to the organization and begin membership talks.
The main aspect of relations between NATO and Georgia
The goal of Georgia’s security policy is to create a safe, democratic, and stable environment. To achieve this, since the 1990s, Georgia’s top foreign policy priority has been to integrate into the Euro-Atlantic area, though it should be noted that Russia is not strategically positioned to allow sovereign states that it considers in its exclusive sphere of influence to move outside its domain. This applies directly to Georgia and Ukraine. On the other side, NATO is not just an organization that consists of armed forces, but a system of management and political decisions—a system that provides a basis for economic, political, or military relations.
The foundation of NATO-Georgia relations was established in 1993, when Georgia joined the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC), which was renamed the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) in 1997. Cooperation continued in 1994 with the launch of the NATO-led Partnership for Peace (PfP) program aimed at enhancing defense and security cooperation between NATO and individual partner countries. The history of NATO-Georgia relations began at the 2002 NATO Summit in Prague, where Georgia first expressed its desire to join NATO.[v] The most important dates for Georgia’s path to NATO are the 2008 Bucharest Summit and 2019 London Summit, where heads of the states expressed support for Georgia and recognized its sovereignty.
In 2004, Georgia became the first country to develop an Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) with a timely action plan within which Georgia made specific commitments to the Alliance. Although the document did not constitute a mechanism for joining the Alliance, it was of the utmost importance, requiring reform and a unified coordinated effort by the Georgian government. At the NATO Foreign Ministerial held in Brussels on 1–2 December 2015, in a document adopted by the North Atlantic Council, the Allies reaffirmed their commitment to NATO’s open door policy. The document also confirmed for the first time that Georgia has all the tools needed to prepare for NATO membership.
Georgia’s involvement in NATO peacekeeping missions is very important, as well. Georgian military units were involved in peacekeeping operations in Kosovo from 1999 to 2008 (KFOR-Kosovo Force). Particularly noteworthy was Georgia’s contribution to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operation in Afghanistan, in which Georgia participated from 2004 to 2014 and was the first contingent of non-NATO partner countries involved in the operation. Since 2015, Georgia has been involved in NATO’s Resolute Support Mission. Georgia is also involved in the NATO Rapid Response Force (NRF-NATO Response Force). With this engagement, Georgia is making a significant contribution to international stability and security. In addition, the Georgian Armed Forces are gaining significant experience. In August 2015, a NATO-Georgian Joint Training and Evaluation Centre was inaugurated in Krtsanisi, Georgia, to contribute to the training and interoperability of Georgian and Alliance personnel.[vi] With the help of NATO and the United States, Georgia has shown its potential military capabilities.
Since establishing relations between NATO and Georgia, the North Atlantic Council has visited Georgia five times between 2008 and 2019, which is an unprecedented number of visits for the Council to a non-member country.[vii] The NATO Parliamentary Assembly has actively promoted NATO-Georgia Relations since 1999, when Georgia joined the Assembly – which gathers twice each year and discusses Georgia’s development toward Euro-Atlantic integration. In September 2019, NATO PA President Madeleine Moon visited Georgia and met senior politicians. Once again, she reiterated support for Georgia’s aspirations to join NATO.[viii] These facts show how important Georgia is for NATO and vice versa. Georgia has shown its huge will and its readiness to integrate in the Euro-Atlantic region.
NATO membership – issue or security?
Some scholars argue that Georgia’s membership in NATO will bring three main problems to the organization, since it is, first, not ready for membership, second, has minor military capabilities – although not very different from the Baltics, Albania, or Luxembourg – and third, occupied territories within its borders. Some Georgians think that integration in NATO and Euro-Atlantic structures would be more harmful and lead to bigger issues than the security NATO can provide for Georgia.
The majority of the Georgian population supports Euro-Atlantic integration, as they see further prospects for enlarging the country’s defense capabilities. A poll carried out by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), as well as several other research studies, found that an average of 78% of Georgians want their country to be a member of NATO, 13% are opposed, and just 9% did not answer.[ix], [x] Let us focus on those voters (9%) who are not confident in their choice. Due to the lack of a clear position, they are likely to change their decision alongside changes in the political situation itself. We should note that, in recent years, not only in society but also across the political spectrum, there is polarization around this topic. As a rule, political parties try to capture the sentiments of the population; therefore, it is important to consider and discuss their arguments. This will help us understand the main reasons for dissatisfaction in order to develop the right policies in the field of civil education.
The main argument of people opposing Georgian membership in NATO is derived from the country’s geopolitical location. Russia has obvious imperial interests in Georgia, and the country does not have any means of self-defense. Therefore, it will be more reasonable to intensify Georgia’s relationship with Russia and avoid escalation. This automatically implies that Georgia should avoid any type of cooperation with Euro-Atlantic structures. For a number of years Georgia relied on the strategy of “bandwagoning” with the Soviet Union, which has created great problems for its territorial integrity. The consequences themselves have already demonstrated the ineffectiveness of that policy. Generally, small states have limited foreign policy options. The main motivation to join unions is self-defense rather than balancing the international system. As a rule, Georgia prefers to cooperate against the aggressor, but surprisingly, a certain part of the population supports closer relations with Russia. The geographical location of the country is an unalterable reality, and there is no reason why Georgia should conduct its foreign policy under oppressive conditions when it can collaborate with democratic and powerful forces.
The part of Georgian society that opposes Georgian membership in NATO has expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that although Georgia actively participates in various NATO-led military operations, during the “August War” in 2008, NATO stayed away and did nothing to defend Georgia’s territorial integrity. In addition, they blame the Bucharest Summit as the main reason for starting the war from the Russian side, since Russia was afraid to lose its enclave in the South Caucasus.[xi] However, while there are reasons for skepticism, NATO is the only force that can stop Russian expansion. Georgia’s participation in these operations has a positive impact on the country’s overall image. While Georgia hopes to get closer to NATO, this does not invoke any mutual obligations.
Another issue is Georgia’s territorial integrity. Those who are opposed to Georgia’s membership in NATO think that Georgia should choose between integration and the occupied territories. Although membership will not automatically solve Georgia’s problems, unconditional cooperation with Russia will not offer any guarantees either. Rather, Georgia should solve its territorial problems through negotiations, and the extra help from NATO will strengthen its positions.
Possible ways toward membership
Although, Georgia may have territorial recognition problems or NATO may face unwanted issues on the way to Georgian Euro-Atlantic integration, there are several options for integration without provoking these issues. At first, we should clarify the profitability and risks for each party. Membership will solve Georgia’s security problems, but for NATO it is a risky decision. Georgia’s two administrative units are occupied, and Russia demonstrates clear and obvious intentions regarding this issue. NATO’s reasons for being careful and hopes that the right policy will help Georgia become a member of the Euro-Atlantic family are completely understandable. Georgia’s main problem is its conflict zones and occupied territories, and the other problem is its ruling system. Reform is easy to solve once you have a clear vision of how to reach your goal and achieve a peaceful and secure environment. Thus, the following ideas concern the problem of occupied territories.
One of the ways forward for Georgian Euro-Atlantic integration is to cut off the base of the problem by giving the occupied territories independence and demarking state borders. For Georgia, this is a sensitive topic, and of course, Abkhazia and South Ossetia belong and are recognized as part of Georgia. Now, several non-NATO member states recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, whereas most states (including all NATO members) recognize these territories as Georgian lands “occupied” by Russia. However, if the Georgian government decides to recognize their independence, international actors will follow, as well. Thus, we will have one more state in the Caucasus if South Ossetia wants to unite with the region of North Ossetia, which is part of Russia, and Abkhazia wants sovereignty; however, independence from Russia in both cases is an open question. In this way, Georgia’s problem concerning its territorial conflicts will disappear, and the counterargument to membership will not exist. Nevertheless, this plan is impossible for several reasons. Mainly, it will increase the risk of independence in other regions of Georgia, where most of the populations are Armenians, Azeris, or Turks and may express their willingness to be independent, as well. Thus, this plan may be problematic for Georgia and can lead to additional territorial issues.
In the beginning of September 2019, former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen advised the Georgian government to start thinking about joining NATO without Abkhazia and South Ossetia.[xii] He clarified that, if Article 5 of the Washington Treaty[xiii] is triggered, this will only cover the territories that the Georgian government holds actual control over and not territories that are de facto controlled by Russia. This idea is both thoughtful and risky at the same time. This may take away the power Putin holds over Georgian integration, but there are still important questions left. Will the territories be lost in this case? Will NATO guarantee the security of other territories before full membership? Will this step encourage Putin to start a new war and occupy other territories? How will NATO guarantee the security and ensure the unity of Georgia? These questions must be answered before deciding to follow Rasmussen’s idea. It is important for us to assess whether giving up the occupied territories will create more risks or start a new stage of negotiations with NATO. The main problem with this idea is how NATO will react to it: maybe it will not accept Georgia’s membership proposal at all. This brings Georgia into a huge puzzle that cannot be solved without the help of NATO and without devising a new plan. It is interesting to take an example from EU enlargement, when the EU accepted part of Cyprus into the union and excluded the northern part of the island.
The best way forward for Euro-Atlantic integration is to provide all these benefits to Abkhazia and South Ossetia once they decide to stay in Georgia’s borders, to democratize them, and to use soft power to bring them to the negotiation table and help fight against Russia as it turns into their enemy. Of course, it is easy to say this and a billion times more difficult to make this a reality. This issue exceeds the power of Georgia and NATO alone: the EU, OSCE, and other Euro-Atlantic organizations should work on this issue, too. As during the Bucharest Summit, at the London Summit in 2019, NATO supported Georgia once again, and it was promised that Georgia would be part of NATO’s European family. However, only promises are not enough, and actual plans are needed for NATO to open the door to Georgia in 2020. A good first step would be to establish a MAP for further integration and to elevate the importance of negotiations to a higher level.
NATO’s open door policy in 2020 is a huge chance and a huge challenge for Georgia to bring the state under NATO’s security umbrella and to negotiate on a higher level with NATO. Clarifying Georgia’s pathway to membership would have greater implications than just expressing Georgia’s possibility to join the Alliance. As I have clarified, the main challenge to Georgia’s integration is its occupied territories. This is the biggest card Putin holds against Georgian Euro-Atlantic integration. Nonetheless, there are several ways toward Georgian membership, but not all of them are clear and direct, including the necessity to amend Articles 5 and 6 for Georgia. Georgia’s recognition of the independence of its occupied territories may be one way to reach this aim, but it is very risky as it may encourage other regions’ fight for independence. The second way toward Georgian integration, however, is more hopeful and clear. Amending Articles 5 and 6 gives Georgia greater hope of joining, but it leaves many unpredictable questions, and Georgia must have clear support from NATO. Nevertheless, the best way is to draw up plans for the occupied territories concerning Article 5, which would provide them the incentive to stay under the control of the Georgian government. The occupied territories should experience all the benefits and protection that NATO and the EU provide; they should become democratic and ethnically united within Georgia’s borders.
NATO’s open door policy in 2020 has the potential to replace the Bucharest Summit in its level of importance for Georgia and provide new chances for possible integration or MAP in the following years. As a Georgian citizen, I hope that one day I will live in a peaceful, secure, democratic, and European homeland, where people fight for a better life and not for survival.
Tornike Tevdoradze is a fourth year undergraduate student at Tbilisi State University in the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences focusing on international relations. He is currently an intern at the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia. He was formerly an intern at Transparency International – Georgia. He has been the Personnel Development Manager of YATA Georgia since January 2018. He has published several articles in international scientific journals, including “Comparative Analysis of Southern Caucasus Countries’ Political and Economic Systems” in the international electronic journal Historical and political problems of the modern world. Tornike was named the best speaker at the conference “Who is who in the international migration justice.” In 2014, he participated in the project “Young Ambassadorial 2014,” which was related to the EU and other intergovernmental organizations. He was an Erasmus+ exchange student in Iasi, Romania, for one semester.
[i] Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, “MILESTONES: 1945–1952, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), 1949,” accessed 29 December 2019, https://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/nato.
[ii] R. Hilton, “Welcoming a Caucasian Guest to the Alliance?” Atlantic Voices 6, no. 7 (2016): 6–11.
[iii] Sedrik Pocuch, “Assessing Georgia’s Potential Membership in NATO,” 25 November 2019, http://natoassociation.ca/assessing-georgias-potential-membership-in-nat....
[iv] Luke Coffey, “How to Admit Georgia to NATO — Without Triggering a War,” The Heritage Foundation, 1 June 2018, accessed 26 December 2019, https://www.heritage.org/global-politics/commentary/how-admit-georgia-na....
[v] Zdenek Kriz and Zinaida Shevchuk, “Georgian readiness for NATO membership after Russian-Georgian armed conflict,” Communist and Post-Communist Studies (Elsevier Ltd on behalf of The Regents of the University of California) 44 (2011): 89–95, doi:10.1016/j.postcomstud.2011.01.003.
[vi] NATO, “NATO-Russia relations: the facts,” last updated 9 August 2019, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_111767.htm.
[vii] TV 1, “North Atlantic Council pays its fifth visit to Georgia,” 3 October 2019, https://1tv.ge/en/news/north-atlantic-council-visits-georgia-for-the-fif....
[viii] NATO Parliamentary Assembly, “NATO PA President Madeleine Moon reiterates support for Georgia’s aspiration to NATO membership,” 18 September 2019, accessed 26 December 2019, https://www.nato-pa.int/news/nato-pa-president-madeleine-moon-reiterates....
[ix] National Democratic Institute, “NDI Poll: EU and NATO Support at a Five-Year High in Georgia; Urgent Action on the Environment and Improvements in Public Education Needed,” 30 January 2019, https://www.ndi.org/publications/ndi-poll-eu-and-nato-support-five-year-....
[x] Thea Morrison, “NDI: Majority of Georgians Support EU, NATO Membership,” Georgia Today, 28 January 2019, accessed 26 December 2019, http://georgiatoday.ge/news/14239/NDI%3A-Majority-of-Georgians-Supports-....
[xi] Tornike Zurabashvili, “Let Georgia Join NATO: Tbilsi’s Case,” Foreign Affairs, 12 April 2016.
[xii] “Anders Fogh Rasmussen offers Georgia a way to join NATO,” Georgian Journal, 10 September 2019, https://www.georgianjournal.ge/politics/36070-anders-fogh-rasmussen-offe....
[xiii] NATO, “Collective defence - Article 5,” last updated 25 November 2019, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_110496.htm.