Obama's NATO Comment Gives Georgia Pause
US President Barack Obama could not have said anything more disappointing for Georgians than that they are "not on a path to NATO membership."
At the very least, the March 26 remark, made also in reference to Ukraine, has put Georgia, the closest US ally in the strategic South Caucasus, in an awkward position.
As Georgian voters, long sold on the idea of NATO membership, turned surprised eyes on the government, officials scrambled to explain this uncomfortable moment.
Georgian Foreign Minister Maya Panjikidze hurried to tell reporters that Obama did not say that neither Ukraine nor Georgia are on the path to NATO, although this is almost verbatim what Obama did say.
“Don’t be sad,” optimistically advised State Minister for Euro-Atlantic Integration Alexi Petriashvili. He argued that Obama did not say that Georgia will not get the much-coveted Membership Action Plan at NATO's September summit this year.
But that’s exactly how it has been perceived by Georgian Facebook and Twitter users. “Nice to know that all those people died in Afghanistan for nothing,” bristled one Facebook user, referring to the more than two dozen Georgian soldiers who have died in NATO’s Afghanistan campaign.
With experience also in Iraq and Kosovo, Georgia has supplied the largest number of troops to that operation out of any non-NATO country.
The Georgian defense ministry, which just received a NATO thumbs-up on its military
reforms, has not yet responded to President Obama's comment about Georgia's NATO prospects. (In comments to EurasiaNet.org earlier this month, Defense Minister Irakli Alasania underlined that Georgia "deserves to move to a qualitatively higher level of cooperation with NATO" as a sign of "implementation" of the Alliance's 2008 decision that Georgia eventually would become a NATO member.)
Ever since Georgia applied for Alliance membership in 1996, a succession of governments have ardently advocated for NATO membership. Apart from hopes that that membership would serve as a restraining order on Russia, many ordinary Georgians see NATO as a promise that some day they will escape their post-Soviet insecurity and be in a place that offers all-encompassing safety.
Routine praise from NATO for various reforms has encouraged that sense.
Yet, asked at a March 27 Tbilisi conference about Obama's comment, Georgia's prime minister, Irakli Gharibashvili, urged caution about NATO for now. Georgians should not harbor "illusions" about NATO, he said, but "assess the existing situation realistically." He termed Obama's remark "absolutely adequate," according to Civil.ge. But if NATO is not panning out as desired, there's always the European Union, the thinking seems to go. To avoid "crises similar to Ukraine," Gharibashvili urged the EU to grant "successful" Eastern Partnership countries (read Georgia) "a clear promise of membership." Nonetheless, the surprise about Obama remains. Many Georgians, drawing on their own long experience with Russia's little ways, perceive US sanctions for the Russian heist of Crimea as merely a peevish slap on the wrist. Not any superpower-style of deterrence.
One Georgian expert on Euro-Atlantic integration, though, argued that Obama had said what he said for Georgia’s own good; to discourage Russia from making a move against the country prior to this September's NATO get-together.
“It says that we are not joining NATO now and that there are no reasons for Russian aggression against us,” reasoned the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies' Kakha Gogolashvili, Netgazeti.ge reported. But others would rejoin that Vladimir Putin is not too particular about his reasons. Over the past few weeks, some Russia enthusiasts have started coming out of the woodwork in Tbilisi and Batumi, leading to several minor clashes. Many view this as a sign that Russia is already making its moves in Georgia. Sanctions or no.