Officials in Georgia have made news lately by breaking up an alleged Russian spy ring and intercepting a weapons-grade uranium trafficking operation. But these two successes in 2010 seem unlikely to revive Tbilisi’s chances of getting back on the fast-track toward membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Georgian officials say they will trumpet their recent achievements during two upcoming security summits – the NATO meeting November 19-20 in Lisbon, and an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe conclave in Astana in early December.
Russia is poised to figure heavily at both events; President Dmitri Medvedev will attend the Lisbon Summit, where Russian–NATO relations are slated for discussion on the second day.
The Georgian government has already taken steps to remind the outside world how it views Russia within a security context. In two separate speeches on November 9, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili alternatively referred to Russia as “a real monster” and “a retarded, feudal country.”
During a televised ceremony honoring Interior Ministry agents who worked on cracking the spy ring case in early November, Saakashvili described the agents’ work as “very important … because our country is obviously under permanent pressure and the threat of permanent destabilization attempts.”
At the same time, in an apparent nod to a Western desire for bilateral dialogue, Saakashvili expressed an interest in talks with Russia -- notwithstanding his earlier disparaging characterizations of Georgia’s northern neighbor – provided that Moscow “shows good will.”
Professing interest in constructive talks with Russia while denigrating its government has been an often-employed tactic by Tbilisi ever since the two countries’ 2008 war. Thousands of Russian troops remain stationed within the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, despite Western governments’ calls for their withdrawal.
Conceivably, the alleged Russian spy ring and uranium trafficking arrests could allow Tbilisi to expand its arguments that greater international attention needs to be paid to security risks in Georgia and, more broadly, in the South Caucasus. While nothing suggests that the Georgian government timed the release of details about both cases to coincide with the NATO summit, independent political analyst Levan Tsutskiridze, noted that it is natural for the government to “remind” the international community that Georgia is an “important area of interest.”
“Of course, there is a fear that Georgia might be sliding down the list of priorities, so I think it is wise from the Georgian side to remind the world that we are partners, we are friends,” Tsutskiridze said.
Lincoln Mitchell, an assistant professor in the Practice of International Politics at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, asserted that Georgia’s efforts to attract greater international attention were largely unnecessary. “I don’t think Georgia has to make its case [to the West],” Mitchell said. “I also don’t think that by constantly making their case, Georgia accomplishes anything.”
Georgia’s position among American foreign policy priorities is not going to change, despite the spy arrests or uranium trafficking sting, he continued. “In the reshuffle of foreign policy priorities in Washington, Georgia has ended up where it belongs: it is a mid-level policy concern,” Mitchell said.
Stephen Flanagan, a longtime NATO specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, underlined that it “is a great misperception” to overemphasize Russia’s influence on the Lisbon Summit. On the other hand, demonstrating that Tbilisi is actively fighting against the threat of nuclear smuggling could be “beneficial” for Georgia, Flanagan suggested. The Group of Experts charged with devising a new strategic framework for the Alliance advised that NATO “make clear its full support” for fighting the proliferation of nuclear weapons, he added.
Tsutskiridze agreed that it is unlikely the arrests or uranium trafficking will result in any major changes in NATO-Georgia relations. Compared with NATO, the OSCE ranks as a far less important audience for Georgia now, he added.
A longer-term perspective on how to make Georgia matter to the West would serve it further with NATO, he asserted. Desires for “stronger engagement” and “stronger support” notwithstanding, “Georgia will not benefit by asking for things that are not doable,” he said, such as immediate membership. “So I think we [should] stay realistic, … continuing to play the role of a responsible partner is the way Georgia will stay on the agenda.”
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi.