How can Georgia both improve relations with Russia while remaining on the path to NATO membership? That's been the fundamental question for Georgia's new government, which has promised to pursue both those seemingly contradictory strategic goals. But the country's defense minister, Irakli Alasania, chooses to frame them as complementary, rather than contradictory, aims. Alasania spoke to The Bug Pit last month in Tbilisi and discussed that question, among several other of the security issues Georgia now faces.
Alasania said that the new government, led by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, is a more attractive ally for NATO in several respects: “First, we are mature politically, we're not going to end up entangled in a military confrontation," he said. Secondly, the ministry is engaging a number of internal reforms to increase transparency, opening up tenders and expanding parliamentary and public oversight. "And the third thing: by improving, step by step, the relationship with Russia. This gives us space to deal with Abkhazians and South Ossetians, to reintroduce ourselves to Abkhazians and Ossetians. This is the key: If Abkhazians and Ossetians start thinking that, together with Georgia they're going to be in Europe, rather than stay under Russian occupation, this is going to be the key when allies will understand that we're ready.”
But he also emphasized that improving relations with Russia was a long-term goal. “Our relationship is slightly improving, on the trade and cultural level. And we hope that will be translated into political dialogue as well. But at this point we don't have any indication that they've changed their position on our territorial integrity or on our aspiration to join NATO. It will come, but it will not come that soon," he said. “No one has any illusion that anything will change in the coming decade. So we have to wait them out, we have to outsmart them. We have to be patient,” he said. “Preparing ourselves means that we're going to wait for the historic opportunity for this window to open up, as it did for the Baltics, then we'll jump in.” He added, however, that he believed that Georgia would make some sort of concrete progress toward the alliance next year, though he said it was unclear what form that may take.
Still, he said that Russia's interests ultimately would favor a strong Georgia. “In the long term Russia needs to have a stable southern neighbor, which is a Georgia united and credible. Whether it happens in five, seven, ten, or fifteen years... a lot depends on us but there are some things we don't have any control over.”
Most of the people I spoke with in Tbilisi complained about NATO's criticism of the new government of Bidzina Ivanishvili over the arrests of former government officials, arguing that the alliance was applying a standard far harsher than it did to the previous government, led by President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement. But Alasania professed to welcome the criticism. “I like this, when we're criticized and scrutinized. It gives us reasons to be very careful and mindful. And it also shows that they care, they are partners and friends and this is why they criticize us, they want us to be successful. We also have to communicate better what is happening here on the judicial transformation.”
Asked about key foreign partnerships as Georgia works to strengthen its military, Alasania highlighted four countries in particular: Turkey, Azerbaijan, Estonia and Israel. “It's time to have a trilateral relationship on defense industry level with Azerbaijan and Turkey,” he said. In particular, Georgia is trying to learn from Azerbaijan's recent efforts to develop an indigenous defense industry. “it's interesting for us.... So far this is only an information exchange but eventually I think we will find some interesting points to work on jointly," he said. “The nature of the threats [to Georgia and to Azerbaijan] are similar, the priorities are similar – we have to protect the [Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan] pipeline, we have to defend the security of the strategic projects that are ongoing, so this is why I think defense cooperation will be a good, solid contribution to the security of these regional projects.”
There are ongoing discussions with arms manufacturers from Estonia and Turkey to set up joint ventures in Georgia with the state-owned defense manufacturer Delta, Alasania said. “We have a very close relationship with Estonian partners. We're going to expand in the future our relationship with Israel, as well.” Russia has traditionally been the key factor with regard to Georgia-Israel defense ties, but asked why Russia now appears not to be blocking closer ties with Israel, Alasania said "I wouldn't know what they [Russia and Israel] are communicating.”
And in terms of the U.S., which was once the most desired weapons provider for Georgia, Alasania downplayed the discussion of any hardware transfers. “Mainly what we're looking for from America is training and education," he said. "Separately, what we are doing jointly in Afghanistan... the military and combat relationship we have in Helmand Province which gives a lot of experience to the Georgian side and we have a wonderful brotherhood with the U.S. Marines, this is developing our abilities, training.”
He said that discussions are underway, however, about some U.S. military aid to Georgia, and Alasania was planning a trip to Washington to meet with his counterpart Chuck Hagel. “In terms of specific equipment, there was an agreement made by the presidents [Obama and Saakashvili]... expanded military cooperation agreement.... transportation means for soldiers, helicopter fleet. It's moving forward, and we're not thinking of acquiring anything else.” Asked what sorts, and quantities, of helicopters were under discussion, he was coy. “We're just working on it, we'll see.” But he said they would likely be provided through some combination of the U.S.'s Excess Defense Articles and Foreign Military Financing programs. “I hope that we'll have some more clarity when I and Hagel will meet.”
You can see more of the interview with Alasania in this week's issue of Jane's Defence Weekly (subscription only).