After an encouraging visit to Washington, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has reason to believe that the Caucasus country's aspiration to join NATO in the near future remains on track, despite the recent political upheaval in Tbilisi.
More than four months of often intense political sparring between Saakashvili and opposition leaders, dating back to the president's imposition of a state of emergency last November, severely dented Georgia's reputation as a democratization leader among former Soviet republics. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. However, President George W. Bush, during a March 19 Oval Office meeting with Saakashvili, seemed to gloss over concern about the recent developments in Georgia. He signaled that he remained a firm supporter of Georgia's long-standing desire for NATO membership, and said he would advocate on Tbilisi's behalf at the upcoming Atlantic Alliance summit in Bucharest in early April.
"I admire what Georgia has gone through, and what Georgia is doing," Bush told journalists after his talks with Saakashvili. "I believe that NATO benefits with a Georgian membership. I believe Georgia benefits from being part of NATO. And I told the president [Saakashvili] it's a message I'll be taking to Bucharest."
During a meeting with Saakashvili on March 20, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also lauded Georgia's efforts. According to Foreign Minister Davit Bakradze, who accompanied Saakashvili on the US visit, Rice expressed "open and clear support " for Georgia's NATO membership drive. "We also heard that the United States supports Georgia's invitation to MAP [Membership Action Plan] at the Bucharest summit," Bakradze said in comments broadcast by Mze television.
A membership action plan is a crucial step for any country seeking to join NATO. "Georgia's aspirations will be decided at the Bucharest summit," Bush said. "MAP is a process that will enable NATO members to be comfortable with their country [Georgia] eventually joining."
On March 19, during his most prominent public appearance in Washington, Saakashvili underscored his government's commitment to transatlantic values and achievements. At the event, sponsored by the Atlantic Council, Saakashvili stressed the importance of NATO's providing his government with a MAP at the Bucharest summit. Georgia already has an Individual Partnership Action Plan with NATO, but without a MAP, the country's hopes for fast-track membership in the alliance would be greatly diminished.
While the US government remains a strong backer of Georgia, other NATO members worry that giving Georgia a MAP would antagonize Moscow at a time when Russian-NATO relations are already strained over US plans to deploy ballistic missile defenses in Central Europe, the independence of Kosovo and Russian energy policies. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. German leaders in particular have expressed concerns that NATO might "import" Georgia's "frozen conflicts" involving Abkhazia and South Ossetia by bringing the country into NATO.
In his Atlantic Council presentation, Saakashvili downplayed the possible negative consequences of Georgian NATO membership. In response to a question about possible Russian responses to Georgia's integration into the Atlantic alliance, Saakashvili said fears about possible Russian recognition of Abkhazia's and South Ossetia's independence were exaggerated. He suggested that the Russian military was stretched thin in the North Caucasus and could not effectively enforce Georgia's partition.
Saakashvili added that Moscow should recognize that it is "playing with fire" in even making verbal statements in support of these regions' independence. Such "political talk" could easily reinforce separatist aspirations in Chechnya and the other Russian-controlled regions of the North Caucasus.
On a more positive note, Saakashvili stressed his willingness to work with his Russian counterparts regarding bilateral issues and the separatist questions. He stressed that, "we are very pragmatic, we are not suicidal in any way."
In comments perhaps directed towards European skeptics, Saakashvili argued that history had shown "appeasing aggressive instincts" would only encourage further threats and belligerent behavior. There should be "no middle ground between evil and good," especially in the case of a "values-based" alliance like NATO. He acknowledged that many people consider him a "hothead" and a "loose cannon," but stressed his commitment to democratization and regional peace.
In response to a question posed by a Russian journalist on Georgia's troubled domestic political climate, Saakashvili argued that the recent upheaval was an indicator of the success of his administration's democratization efforts. Different groups now had the ability to voice their opinions and pursue their interests within an inherently "contentious and demanding" pluralistic framework, he said, adding that he intended to strengthen rule-of-law in Georgia so that his country would "continue to serve as a role model" for political, as well as economic, reforms in the region.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.