NATO Secretary General Lord George Robertson's recent tour of the Caucasus confirmed the Atlantic alliance's growing interest in promoting regional stability. It also left officials in Azerbaijan and Georgia increasingly optimistic about eventual NATO membership. At the same time, Robertson stressed there are limits to NATO's ability to expand its security umbrella over the region.
Robertson visited Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan from May 14-16, receiving a warm reception in each capital. All three countries -- even Armenia, which is Russia's closest ally in the Caucasus -- view NATO as an important piece of the regional stabilization puzzle.
The NATO secretary general reciprocated by signaling the Atlantic alliance intends to continue efforts to broaden its regional profile. NATO interest is driven by several factors, namely the region's growing strategic importance as an energy export corridor. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. There is also concern among NATO members that international terrorists -- including members of the notorious al Qaeda organization might try to take advantage of the Caucasus instability to establish a presence in the region. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archives].
"The Caucasus region is of crucial importance for the security of the whole Euro-Atlantic area," Robertson said during his stop in Georgia. Earlier in Armenia, Robertson described the three Caucasus countries as being in the "vanguard of the opposition to 21st century threats," according to a May 14 report by the Mediamax news agency.
Despite the mutual interest in expand cooperation, Robertson emphasized that NATO should not be viewed as the miracle cure for all of the region's geopolitical ills. "NATO cannot play the leading role in speeding the peace process in the South Caucasus," the Turan news agency quoted Robertson as saying May 15 during his stay in Azerbaijan.
"Responsibility for achieving peace is borne mainly by the countries themselves," Robertson continued, referring to efforts to find political solutions to long-standing conflicts, such as Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhazia. "At the same time, we understand that it is impossible to achieve long-term conflict settlements without [the input] of outside forces, above all, Russia."
Robertson's caveat appears indicative of concern in Brussels that too great a NATO presence in the Caucasus could be counter-productive actually causing an increase of instability by sowing tension between the alliance and Russia. NATO, Robertson explained, is hesitant at this time to take action viewed as provocative by Moscow. "For a long period of time, Russia was our enemy. But now the situation has radically changed," the secretary general said in a May 14 report by the Arminfo news agency.
Regional leaders have differing visions on how NATO fits into Caucasus' geopolitical future. During the tour, Robertson did not attempt to define the limits of NATO involvement in the region. This was viewed as a positive development by officials in Azerbaijan and Georgia the two countries in the region seeking to join the Atlantic alliance. "I personally view our future as far as joining the alliance is concerned with more optimism after this visit," Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili said in a May 14 interview broadcast by the Rustavi-2 television channel.
In the past, NATO officials have tended to be dismissive of Azerbaijan's and Georgia's membership desires. But in Tbilisi, Robertson indicated that NATO's door "remains open" to Azerbaijani and Georgian membership, while adding that the road to admittance would be "long and tough."
Robertson said NATO membership aspirations of Azerbaijan and Georgia would depend on the ability of the two countries to implement democratic reforms. He also said NATO member states hope upcoming elections in both countries will be conducted freely and fairly. Azerbaijan is currently slated to hold a presidential poll in October, although the precarious state of President Heidar Aliyev's health could force a special election to be held at an earlier date. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Georgia is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections in late autumn. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Concerning Armenia, Robertson praised the gradual expansion of ties, citing Yerevan's "substantial role" in NATO's Partnership for Peace program. Armenia officials welcomed a NATO presence in the Caucasus, but made it clear that they did not see the Atlantic alliance replacing Russia as the main outside security influence. Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian added that Armenia had no intention of seeking NATO membership.
Georgian leaders acknowledged that qualifying for NATO entry would pose a substantial challenge. "Georgia will have to be ripe for membership," Menagharishvili told Rustavi-2. "No one from outside can assess to what extent we will be able to do it. It is task for us to accomplish, our homework, so to speak."
The existing situation within Georgia's military establishment helps illustrate the challenge confronting Tbilisi. For approximately the last year, Georgia has relied heavily on US military assistance to reorganize the Georgian army.
Just days before Robertson's visit, the second Georgian battalion completed a US-sponsored program, known as train-and-equip (GTEP) program. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. At present, there are about 1,200 Georgian soldiers that have undergone training with US military advisors, with an additional 1,200 to be trained by mid-2004 under the $64-million program.
Despite the US assistance, the Georgian government continues to experience budgetary problems. The defense budget for the current fiscal year is funded only at only 60 percent of the projected expenditures.
Following talks in early May with Georgian defense officials, Frank Boland, chief of Force Planning Section at NATO's Defense Planning and Operations Division, said that Tbilisi's budget woes make it "impossible to imagine that any organization, and especially the military one, will be capable to fulfill its tasks."
Georgia's Chief of Staff, Joni Pirtskhalaishvili was even more straightforward in a recent interview: "Everything regarding the [matching government funding] to GTEP has been carried out. All the rest [of the programs and activities] have failed [to be fully funded]."
The "rest," according to Georgia defense experts, includes the ongoing anti-terrorist operation in the Pankisi Gorge. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In addition, salaries for Defense Ministry staff, other than those who signed their contracts under GTEP, remain at low pre-1996 levels. The salaries of the civilian personnel the number of which would increase under NATO requirements is even lower at 50 lari (less than $25 USD) per month on average.
Defense analyst Koba Liklikadze argues that a potentially dangerous trend may be developing in which "two armies" exist in Georgia one consisting well-paid GTEP personnel and another one of the frustrated, underpaid career officers and civilian defense employees. This, Liklikadze argues, may create strong tensions within the body of the army and undermine Georgia's ability to conduct reforms and turn itself into a more attractive candidate for NATO membership.
Jaba Devdariani is a founding director of the United Nations Association of Georgia (www.una.org.ge) and Research Director of the UNAs program for applied research.