NATO recently recognized Georgia’s contributions to peacekeeping missions from Afghanistan to Kosovo by holding a session of the alliance’s parliamentary assembly in Tbilisi in late May. The occasion reinforced the hopes of Georgian leaders that their country can one day soon gain admission to NATO. However, polling in the lead up to NATO’s parliamentary assembly also sheds light on a trend that could potentially hinder its membership bid.
Public support in Georgia for the country’s NATO membership bid remains strong. A recent survey CRRC-Georgia carried out for the National Democratic Institute shows that 68 percent of Georgians support the government’s goal of joining the alliance. If Georgia were a NATO member, this would be the third highest level of support of any member state polled in a recent Pew Research Center survey.
Yet, CRRC and NDI’s data also shows that disapproval with the prospect of membership is rising. Back in 2012, roughly a quarter of the public was uncertain over whether the country should join NATO; since 2015, however, only about one in 10 have reported uncertainty. Over the same period, disapproval of NATO membership doubled from about one in 10 Georgians to roughly one in five.
This trend has at least two potential explanations.
First, people who used to report that they are not sure about membership might have always been opposed to the Alliance. Rather than telling interviewers this, they felt social pressure not to say so, because they perceived NATO support to be popular in Georgia. This phenomenon, being shy about reporting unpopular opinions to survey interviewers, is common, and is known as social desirability bias.
If this explanation is correct, then the shift from uncertainty in response to disapproval is a sign of a trend in Georgian society and its foreign policy discourse: anti-Euro Atlantic views are more widely accepted or at least perceived to be more socially acceptable than in years past. Over the past couple of years, politicians have expressed less confrontational views towards Russia, at least when compared with the virulently anti-Russian rhetoric of former president Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement, which lost its parliamentary majority in 2012. This change in discourse might contribute to the trend, making it more widely acceptable to express views that are not pro-Western. While beyond the scope of this article, Russian propaganda too could be playing some role.
A second possible explanation is that a significant number of those who were previously undecided are now making up their minds: no longer sitting on the fence, they have decided that the actual or potential costs of NATO membership are too great, or the chance of NATO membership too low, to make the required sacrifices.
Georgia is a small country and, even in absolute terms, it contributed more soldiers to NATO’s mission in Afghanistan than any other non-member state. This contribution has not come without a cost: over 30 Georgian soldiers have died in Afghanistan and hundreds have been wounded.
The potential for NATO membership to incite Russia’s ire weighs heavily in the minds of those who disapprove. When those who reported opposing Georgia’s NATO bid were asked why they disapprove, the most common response was that it will cause conflict with Russia.
Despite Georgia’s sacrifices, membership in the Alliance seems distant to a majority of Georgians. Since the 2008 Bucharest Summit Declaration, which stated that Georgia and Ukraine would someday become members of the Alliance, a Membership Action Plan – a first step towards membership – has proven elusive. This is reflected in public opinion about when Georgia will join NATO: 16 percent think the country will never join, and an additional 38 percent are uncertain if or when the country will be offered membership. A majority of those who are uncertain about a membership date favor Georgia’s NATO bid.
Even though disapproval of Georgia’s NATO bid may be rising, the head of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly has suggested that Georgia is more prepared for membership than even some member states. Notably, Georgian military expenditure has consistently exceeded 2 percent of GDP, the level required of NATO members, despite the fact that only five member states meet this spending target. On top of this, a full 80 percent of those polled think that military spending should either stay the same or increase.
If the Alliance is dedicated to its 2008 Bucharest commitments, it should make its intentions clear to the Georgian public. The lack of a clear signal from the Alliance seems likely to only keep stoking uncertainty and disapproval of members among the Georgian public.
Dustin Gilbreath is a policy analyst at CRRC-Georgia. Rati Shubladze is a researcher at CRRC-Georgia. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of either CRRC-Georgia or the National Democratic Institute.