Georgia Gets No Love From State Dept.
Georgia's NATO aspirations didn't exactly get a ringing endorsement from a State Department official at a Congressional hearing Thursday previewing next month's alliance summit in Chicago. U.S. officials have been hinting that Georgia would get some sort of reward at the summit for their recent constructive steps, like compromising with the Kremlin on Russia's bid for the World Trade Organization. As the U.S.'s next ambassador to Tbilbisi, Richard Norland, said at his confirmation hearing last month:
"Serious efforts” were being undertaken by the U.S. administration to use upcoming NATO summit in Chicago “to signal acknowledgment for Georgia’s progress in these areas and to work with the Allies to develop a consensus on the next steps forward.”
That reward won't be a NATO Membership Action Plan, the holy grail for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, and a virtual guarantee of future membership. But Washington still wants to signal to Georgia that they are valued -- they are, after all, the highest per-capita troop contributor to the coalition in Afghanistan -- while continuing to press them on political reforms. Norland said that the conduct of upcoming elections would be a "litmus test" for Georgia's NATO aspirations: parliamentary elections will be held this year and presidential elections next year, and Saakashvili appears determined to throw up as many obstacles as he can to his main opponent.
But if the U.S. is planning to throw any bones to Georgia at the NATO summit, they're being coy about it. Here's what the State Department representative, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Tina Kaidanow, said about Georgia on Thursday:
With regard to Georgia, U.S. security assistance and military engagement support the country’s defense reforms, train and equip Georgian troops for participation in ISAF operations, and advance its NATO interoperability. In January, President Obama and President Saakashvili agreed to enhance this cooperation to advance Georgian military modernization, defense reform, and self defense capabilities. U.S. assistance programs provide additional support to ongoing democratic and economic reform efforts in Georgia, a critical part of Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations, where they have made important strides. U.S. support for Georgia’s territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders remains steadfast, and our non-recognition of the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will not change.
Reading between the lines, that's pretty boilerplate stuff. By contrast, she mentioned specific steps the U.S. was taking to move down the membership path with the other three aspirant countries, Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro. Is that reading too much into one paragraph? Possibly. It's also possible that the administration is still trying to figure out what to do, and so doesn't want to give any sort of signal before it knows exactly what it plans to do. But if I were Georgian, my heart would sink a little at that testimony.
Several think tank types also testified at the hearing, and one offered an interesting tidbit. Luke Coffey, the Margaret Thatcher Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said that Georgia is saying behind the scenes that it is willing to effectively leave NATO out of the resolution of the conflicts over Abkhazia and South Ossetia:
The biggest hurdle for Georgian membership from a western perspective is the continued Russian occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, equating to 20% of Georgia’s internationally recognized territory. Privately, Georgian officials say that they are happy to accept a NATO membership arrangement/compromise that temporarily excludes the two occupied territories from NATO’s Article 5 security guarantee until there is a peaceful resolution to the matter with the Russians.
There are of course still many other problems with Georgia's membership aspirations -- mainly that it has shown a proclivity for picking fights with nuclear powers -- but it's interesting that Georgia has made that move. We'll see if it gets them anything in Chicago.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.