President Eduard Shevardnadze is courting NATO, hoping the military alliance can help serve as a guarantor of his domestic stabilization efforts. Accordingly, Georgia has taken steps to make itself more attractive to NATO. The alliance, to a certain extent, has responded favourably to the Georgian overtures. Nevertheless, Georgia needs to overcome significant obstacles before it can seriously entertain hope of gaining NATO membership.
Shevardnadze has stated repeatedly in recent months that he would like to see Georgia join NATO by 2005. His NATO pronouncements appear part of a grand strategy to bring domestic tranquillity to Georgia following more than a decade of internecine violence and economic dysfunction. [For additional information see Eurasia Insight].
NATO-Georgian co-operation has accelerated during the past year, Georgian Chief of Staff Djoni Pirtskhalaishvili recently told the AVN Military News Agency. During the first six months of this year, Georgian troops participated in almost 100 NATO-sponsored military exercises and training sessions. In 2001, Georgia plans to host a major NATO military exercise under the auspices of the Partnership for Peace program. In addition, the Georgian military has appointed First Deputy Chief of Staff, Col. David Nairashvili, to serve as the country's first representative to the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Belgium.
Georgian officials also have announced that a visit to Tbilisi by NATO secretary-general George Robertson has been tentatively scheduled for September.
In a recent television interview, Parliament Chairman Zurab Zhvania indicated the United States is playing a significant role in Georgia's military transformation. At first, the United States took a cautious approach towards military assistance efforts, due in large part to ongoing political and economic turmoil in Georgia. During the early 1990s, US assistance was limited largely to educational exchanges for Georgian officers and troops. Washington additionally offered limited assistance for the development of new security structures in Georgia. For instance, in 1993 the United States trained a special Georgian counter-terrorism unit.
Policy makers began paying more attention to Georgia beginning in the mid 1990s, following the formulation of plans to build pipelines that would bring oil and gas from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, via Georgia, to terminals in Turkey. Since then, the United States has been a vociferous advocate of the so-called Baku-Ceyhan pipeline route.
Following a visit by Shevardnadze to the United States in 1997, military cooperation started to intensify. The US government approved a Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program that facilitated Georgian purchases of US military hardware, and other defense-related improvements. A subsequent agreement regulating the use of assistance barring its use against civilian population, or its transfer to a third party -- was signed in 1998.
Among the major projects of the program is an agreement to grant Georgia 10 UH1H combat helicopters (unarmed). Six of them are expected to be operational, while four others will be used for spare parts. Georgian Frontier Troops are also due to receive a patrol helicopter this August, as well as other monitoring equipment.
Since 1997, about 140 Georgian officers have received military training under the FMF program, which strives to facilitate operational compatibility among American and Georgian forces. From 1997-99, the United States spent about $17.5 million on FMF-related programs.
Other assistance programs include: International Military Education and Training (IMET), which aims to improve military preparedness; the Humanitarian Assistance Program; and Warsaw Initiative Fund, which provides additional financial aid to recipient countries for participation in the Partnership for Peace program.
Another initiative under consideration would train Georgian National Guards in humanitarian operations and national crisis management. The IMET program also may expand, with several million dollars in additional funding.
A downturn in Georgia's relationship with Russia may be encouraging Tbilisi's pursuit of a Western security option. Russia has exerted considerable pressure on Georgia to take a more cooperative stance on Kremlin strategic policies, particularly those concerning the conduct of the war in Chechnya. Moscow has complained that Georgia is abetting Chechen resistance by permitting Chechen separatists to operate an information center on Georgian territory, as well as failing to properly monitor its border with the renegade Russian province.
Russia has also shown a reluctance to follow up on commitments provided during the 1999 OSCE summit in Istanbul on the closure of its four military bases in Georgia. Russia has agreed to vacate two of the four bases, but the status of the other two posts remains unresolved. As an enticement to Russia, the United States has offered to finance the base closure process.
Georgia's desire to join NATO may be genuine, but Russia possesses many instruments to frustrate Shevardnadze's plans, and compel his cooperation with the Kremlin line. At the present stage, US military assistance to Georgia provides vital support for Georgian state-building efforts. However, how efficiently this aid contributes to the ongoing development of the country's statehood depends entirely on Georgia.
David Darchiashvili is a military analyst based in Georgia.