NATO Deals Blow To Georgia's Membership Hopes
NATO has struck a blow to Georgia's membership aspirations, announcing that the country is still expected to pass through a stage of accession, the so-called MAP, that officials in Tbilisi have lobbied to skip.
"At the 2008 Bucharest Summit we agreed that Georgia will become a member of NATO with MAP as an integral part of the process; today we reaffirm all elements of that decision," NATO foreign ministers announced after a meeting Wednesday.
Georgia has sought MAP, without success, for many years, and of late Tbilisi has taken a new tack: Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli has been trying to convince NATO members that the MAP, or Membership Action Plan, is an unnecessary "intermediate step" for Georgia. "There should be no intermediary steps between Georgia and NATO," she tweeted in October.
So Wednesday's move, reaffirming the necessity of MAP, was yet another setback in Georgia's quest for NATO accession. "That Khidasheli has been unable to secure even that is unsurprising, but it does represent a symbolic blow considering that Georgia is already in many ways 'beyond' the MAP stage -- not to mention the amount of diplomatic energy Tbilisi spent on this initiative," said Michael Hikari Cecire, a Caucasus expert and associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, in an email interview with The Bug Pit.
Cecire added that NATO still in theory could be flexible in the future. "The good news for Georgia, however, is that even though NATO says it is sticking with the MAP, it could just as easily discard it should conditions warrant it," he said. "For example, almost no one believes that Sweden and Finland would be asked to go through the MAP process if they were to seek NATO membership. Similarly, if NATO saw some benefit in accelerating Georgian accession, I doubt they would feel particularly compelled to adhere to what is ultimately a relatively recent addition to the expansion process."
NATO's statement did contain all sorts of encouraging words for Georgia: "Georgia’s relationship with the Alliance contains all the practical tools to prepare for eventual membership. ... We welcome the important progress made in implementing the Substantial NATO-Georgia Package ... NATO recognizes Georgia’s efforts to strengthen its democracy, including to reform the judiciary and security services, and to modernise its military forces and defence institutions."
It did also contain a mild rebuke, in apparent reference to the controversy over government interference in a leading television station, Rustavi2: "Bearing in mind recent developments on media freedom and rule of law, we encourage Georgia to sustain momentum in its overall reform efforts, which we will continue to support."
NATO did offer membership to Montenegro, and Georgia's allies tried to present that as encouraging news for Tbilisi: “What we have seen today is that NATO’s door is open; it remains open and we proved it by inviting Montenegro,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. “Georgia has made a lot of progress.”
Russia has opposed further NATO expansion, and responded angrily to the offer of membership to Montenegro, threatening to cut off military cooperation with the Balkan state if it completes the accession process. Moscow's levers over Podgorica are limited, however. "BREAKING: #Medvedev unfriends #Montenegro president Filip Vujanović on Facebook and blocks him on Twitter," a parody site of the state news agency Sputnik reported.
"One of the key arguments that has persuaded NATO member states to issue the invitation is precisely the message to Moscow that Russia cannot divide Europe into spheres of influence," Jonathan Eyal, international director at the Royal United Services Institute in London, told RFE/RL.
For Russia, of course, Georgia is not comparable to Montenegro in terms of strategic and political importance. Tbilisi surely knows that, so it's not clear how encouraged they'll be by Montenegro's success.