NATO officials are raising expectations for Georgia ahead of the alliance's summit this fall, saying that while the country won't get the coveted Membership Action Plan that would be a direct path to full membership, it will nevertheless get a "substantial," "unprecedented" boost that will help Georgia get closer to NATO.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said definitively that Georgia will not get a MAP at the upcoming summit, which was news only to the most starry-eyed Georgians. "The summit in Wales will not be about a Membership Action Plan; but about more support to bring Georgia closer to NATO. And it will be a substantive package," Rasmussen said at a press conference in Brussels.
As to what that "package" will include, it is apparently not yet known, Rasmussen continued: "We will work on that package in close collaboration with Georgia from now until the summit. So I regret to say that I'm not able to outline the specific elements of that package at this stage. It will be elaborated on...from now until the summit."
Georgia's drawn-out courtship of NATO thus appears to be destined for years more of slow-motion drama. Some NATO members, notably the United States and many of the newer, post-communist members have pushed for faster NATO integration for Georgia (Latvia's defense minister, speaking Wednesday with his Georgian counterpart, endorsed MAP for Georgia). But several Western European members have been more reticent, for a variety of reasons: concern over the promise to defend a country which doesn't even control all of its de jure territory (i.e., the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia), reticence to provoke Russia for the sake of unclear strategic gain, and Georgia's uncertain record on democracy and human rights.
While the first two problems remain, Georgia seems to have made substantial progress in proving that it is the kind of democratic country that NATO wants. NATO officials said before the landmark 2012 and 2013 Georgian elections that it would reward Georgia for successful vote. And those elections, in which President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement lost and peacefully handed over power to its rivals, went better than almost anyone expected. So some sort of substantial reward has been long in the making.
Rasmussen didn't say specifically why Georgia wouldn't get MAP yet, but he did allude to the fact that it is not technically ready. Speaking about all the candidate countries, which also include Bosnia, Macedonia, and Montenegro: “Each one has work to do, in different areas and we will give aspirants the support they need to get them through the door.” Last week, Reuters reported that among the measures NATO was considering for Georgia included "closer political cooperation, training the Georgian armed forces and strengthening NATO's liaison office in Georgia." And Georgian website Civil.ge reported that that was only part of the deal: "Georgian officials confirmed that such package is being developed, but also said that reported elements are only part of the broader proposal, which is still being discussed."
In an interview with Georgian television, NATO's special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, James Appathurai, said the strengthening of the liaison office was already decided. "[A]t the Summit in Wales, we will put in place an unprecedented package, connecting Georgia to NATO more deeply and more substantially than it has ever been before -- and, I believe, more than any other non-NATO country," Appathurai wrote on his facebook page. "I know there is disappointment among many that MAP will not be granted, but actually Georgia IS moving closer to NATO, maybe not through a giant step, but at a steady pace. And that is the result of the hard work, and good diplomacy, of the Georgian government, present and past."
Georgian officials put on a brave face in light of the MAP rejection. "James Appathurai is right when he says that Georgia is not completely ready for the NATO membership. Today, NATO and Georgia are oriented on the following step of integration to get the so called Membership Action Plan (MAP)," said Defense Minister Iraklia Alasania. "We will need certain years to become a full-fledged member of NATO that requires improvement of political system, security measures and defence capabilities of the country. I think that the Ukrainian developments, the Russian aggression taking place in the region and regional security environment should become the good reason for launching negotiations on NATO integration and I have made the statement about it in Washington. From this context James Appathurai is absolutely right."
Alasania also mentioned his proposal to deploy NATO military assets like air defense systems to Georgia as a sign of support against Russia, which had been looking hopeless, but Alasania suggested that there would soon be news on that front: "When we are talking about providing a country with NATO’s military potential, we mean that it should be decided through negotiations among its member nations that possess such potential, will it be air defence or any other type of armament. I should add that the negotiations about the issue are ongoing successfully. I hope that the results of the talks will become public very soon."
Russia, meanwhile, was unimpressed. Noting Rasmussen's statement that "Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has fundamentally changed the security landscape, and it has challenged our vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace," the Russian military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda deplored Rasmussen's "belligerent rhetoric" and warned that "new plans for NATO's expansion to the East" were expected at the upcoming summit.