When Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili announced earlier this month that he intended for Georgia to get a NATO Membership Action Plan by the end of next year, it seemed like he was engaging in a bit of geopolitical wishful thinking similar to that of his political rival, President Mikheil Saakashvili. NATO MAP -- which would put Georgia solidly on the road of becoming a full member -- has been Saakashvili's holy grail, but the goal has only seemed to recede over the past few years. But Caucasus analyst Michael Cecire suggests that Ivanishvili's government is in fact making the kind of reforms that will get Georgia into NATO. In a piece in The National Interest, he notes that Georgia's high level of defense spending, substantial contribution to the war in Afghanistan and successful elections last year make Georgia seem a strong candidate. But of course, the weakest element of Georgia's case for NATO membership has always been political, related to the complications of its relations with Russia. But Ivanishvili's government has made key steps toward mitigating that problem, Cecire writes.
[T]he new government has made overtures to Russia and embarked on a military-reform program in an effort to reduce the prospect of another war and bolster its case for NATO membership. Recognizing that the often bellicose tone towards Moscow struck by the previous United National Movement (UNM) government had done little to advance Tbilisi’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations, the Georgian Dream government is pushing to normalize ties with Russia.
But Cecire notes that what is less often written about is how the defense ministry, now led by Irakli Alasania, has carried out important democratic reforms:
[W]hat has been particularly well-noticed by NATO and Western officials are the efforts being made to spread democratic practices. In the defense ministry, Alasania has created transparency working groups and engaged Transparency International Georgia to provide an interim report on progress. In a break from previous practices, Alasania claims that the once blurry divisions between the defense and interior ministries are being clarified and firmly delineated to prevent abuse.
Also significantly, the ministry has taken the unusual step of drafting legislation to increase its own oversight from parliament. The justice ministry, another major area being closely watched abroad, is also undertaking a number of important reforms. One senior NATO official, specifically highlighting such initiatives, even said that the new government was “pushing harder [towards Euro-Atlantic integration] in some ways” compared to their predecessors.
Will this be enough to overcome the political barriers for Georgian NATO membership? And do so within the next 18 months? Of course, no one knows. But it sounds like we need to start taking seriously the notion that Ivanishvili's government may in fact be better suited to getting Georgia into NATO than was its predecessor.