As Sweden and Finland move swiftly toward NATO membership, Georgians – who have been seeking for more than a decade to enter the alliance – are watching the process with mixed feelings.
The accession of the two Scandinavian states would seem to override what has been seen as a “Russian veto” over further NATO expansion near its borders. That could help break the stalemate that has kept Georgia and Ukraine from joining since they were first promised membership in 2008, according to one line of thinking.
But pessimists in Georgia fear that the current round of expansion will be enough for NATO to swallow and leave Georgia continuing to wait on the outside.
For Georgians, the Nordic expansion is “bittersweet,” said Kornely Kakachia, the director of the Georgian Institute of Politics, a Tbilisi-based think-tank.
“On one hand, it’s good that NATO’s open-door policy is in place, which is good for Georgia, also that Russia can’t have veto power on this,” Kakachia told Eurasianet. “It could be seen as an opening for Georgia, but the opposite could also happen – NATO could be happy with the status quo, losing appetite for further enlargement,” Kakachia said. The key variable, he said, was how the war in Ukraine ends.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine was the impetus for Sweden and Finland to abandon their longstanding policies of neutrality and seek NATO membership. On May 18 they both submitted their applications, and have both received encouraging signals from the alliance about their quick accession prospects.
Georgia, by contrast, has been stuck in limbo for years, following the alliance’s 2008 statement that Georgia and Ukraine “will become members of NATO.”
While NATO has repeatedly reaffirmed that pledge, there has been little discernible movement forward, and Georgia has yet to receive the formal Membership Action Plan that would be a pathway to membership.
And as the alliance prepares to hold a summit in June in Madrid, where member states are expected to adopt a document setting its direction for the coming decade, Georgia’s accession again seems to have been left off the agenda.
For years, American and European officials have been saying that Georgia is technically ready to join the alliance. NATO has been cooperating heavily with Georgia: the alliance has helped Georgia build its military and defense capacities while Georgia has been contributing to NATO-led international missions and regularly takes part in military exercises with the allied countries.
But the process has been stalled by the fact that Georgia is already in open conflict with Russia, which has stationed an estimated 10,000 troops in Georgia’s two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Many European NATO members have expressed unease about admitting a new member in that state.
In January, as signs of the looming Ukraine war were building, a senior German military official reiterated the skeptical attitude many NATO member states have about Georgian membership.
“Georgia is willing to become a member,” the officer, German Navy Chief Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach, said at an event in India. “Do they meet requirements? Yes, yes, they do. Is it smart to have them as a member? No, it’s not, no it’s not.”
Schönbach was forced to resign over the comments (he had made a similar argument about Ukraine), but optimists in Georgia emphasized the positive points he had made about Georgia.
Schönbach “says that Georgia is, in fact, ready for NATO membership and only needs a single move from the West, an approval, to enter NATO,” Giorgi Khelashvili, deputy chair of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee told Georgian Public Television.
Some advocates of Georgian membership for NATO have proposed a formula in which the country could be admitted but that only the territory currently under its control would be subject to the alliance’s cornerstone Article 5, calling for members to come to each others’ defense in case of external attack.
"Georgia fulfills almost all criteria to become a member of NATO," Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former NATO General Secretary, told the Georgian service of Voice of America in 2019. "I think the way to move beyond that stalemate is to discuss in Georgia whether you will accept an arrangement where NATO's Article 5 covers only that Georgian territory where the Georgian government has full sovereignty."
Polls show that Georgians are overwhelmingly supportive of joining the alliance. But years of waiting have occasioned some frustration in Georgia about being stuck outside NATO’s purportedly open doors.
“Sufficient time has passed since  for that promise to have been kept,” Tina Khidasheli, a former defense minister of Georgia, told news website Civil.ge in January. “The most simple, clear, and right response to Russia’s blackmail would be not to make further promises, but to act on the old ones.”
Georgia’s sense of being left out of this round of NATO expansion, however, is tempered by the alliance’s questioning of the country’s democratic credentials, issues that Swedish and Finnish accession is not raising.
Javier Colomina, the NATO Secretary General’s special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, visited Tbilisi in late April. In a subsequent interview with Formula TV, he said that the alliance was pushing for Georgia’s government to adopt additional reforms involving the judiciary, electoral system, and security sector.
“We are concerned with the level of implementation of the reforms we are asking for,” Colomina said, noting that reforms have “stalled over the past year or year and a half,” the network reported.
The sensitivity around democratization and NATO membership were on display when Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili visited Brussels on May 18. When a scheduled meeting between Garibashvili and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was abruptly canceled, some in the political opposition assumed the worst, linking the cancellation to Georgia’s deteriorating human rights situation and what they see as appeasement to Russia vis-à-vis the Ukraine war.
The meeting was then rescheduled the same day, without explanation.
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.