Giorgi Badridze, Senior Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation 

On June 14, 2021, the 31st NATO Heads of State Summit will be held in Brussels. For years, meetings of the leaders of the NATO countries have been generating a keen interest in Georgia as membership in this organization and thus gaining security guarantees has for a long time now been acknowledged as a strategic goal for our country.

It is apparent, however, that Georgia should not expect much from the Brussels meeting. Probably the first sign to that end was that Georgia was not even invited to the Summit.

Despite of years of close cooperation, there is more skepticism today among the NATO members about Georgia’s membership in the alliance or even about the granting of the Membership Action Plan (MAP) than there was during the 2008 Bucharest Summit. In Bucharest, Georgia was denied the MAP (as was Ukraine) despite the opinion of many experts who believed that Georgia indeed deserved the plan. This is all happening despite the fact that the German argument to block the MAP was proven fundamentally wrong in just a few months. The position of Chancellor Merkel was based on the premise that offering the MAP to Georgia and Ukraine would provoke Russia’s aggressive response. As it soon became apparent, exactly what Germany considered as a constructive approach ended up provoking military aggression toward Georgia by Putin’s regime as Russia interprets concession as a sign of weakness and not as a gesture of good will.     

At the time, Berlin, Paris and other Western capitals may not have known that the policy of compromise would prompt Russia to launch a war but this suggests a fault in their strategic thinking. In Georgia, we knew clearly that if the country were left unprotected after the recognition of Kosovo, Russia would spring into action.  It is true that the MAP does not constitute a defense mechanism but Russia interpreted its denial as NATO’s weakness and assumed it would be unlikely to get an adequate reaction to its aggression from NATO that had just displayed its division over the Georgian issue. 

The consequent developments should have made it even clearer. Barely a year had passed since the 2008 Russian aggression when the Obama administration proposed a “reset” to Moscow as a gesture of good will in order to mend the complicated relations and start over with a blank page. However, when Russia saw that there was no price to pay for its actions, it again interpreted this as weakness with Ukraine becoming its target in 2014.

In other words, Russia has demonstrated in no uncertain terms that it is not interested in the repairing of its relations with the West even when it is offered unilateral concessions. The reason for this is in the peculiarities of Russia’s political system wherein the government cannot function properly unless it exercises a monopoly on power (which Mr. Putin has named the “Power Vertical”). This, among other factors, requires the belief by the Russians in an external enemy and the non-existing foreign threat which Mr. Putin’s government has been cultivating methodically.

But if, as expected, the 2021 NATO Summit delivers nothing to Georgia, we should look for a good share of reasons within ourselves. Our partners who support Georgia’s NATO membership require solid arguments in order to convince the skeptics. For this, Georgia needs to demonstrate to the West that out country possesses a certain geopolitical value such as, for instance, the ability to connect the greater Black Sea and the Caspian Sea regions. Not least, Georgia will also be judged by the quality of its democracy, even though there are precedents in the past when the alliance admitted countries that have been far from model democracies (as well a country – namely Germany – which did not control a large part of its territory and had not recognized its independence). However, in these cases the geopolitical considerations prevailed.

Unfortunately, Georgia is not able to boast about either of these issues at the Brussels Summit. Georgia’s value, which it acquired through its participation in international energy projects, is gradually diminishing with the declining prominence of oil in the world economy whereas its huge potential as a regional transportation hub remains unrealized. This is clearly demonstrated by the fiasco of the strategic Anaklia deep sea port project and the ongoing degradation of Georgian Railways (which until recently has been a regional monopolist). This is the case while Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan have built major seaport infrastructures on the Caspian. Thus, in the South Caucasus transport corridor, which could have given our country a strategic importance, Georgia is turning into the weakest link.

The democratic transfer of power in 2012 created an expectation that Georgia could improve the overall quality of its democracy by addressing the failings in the rule of law. After all, the Georgian Dream coalition had placed human rights and the “restoration of justice” at the heart of its election campaign. However, the West must have noticed that in the recent years Georgia’s democracy has declined in the international ratings (the country is not a leader even in the South Caucasus region anymore). Moreover, the recent visit to Georgia of the President of the Council of the European Union Mr. Charles Michel was dedicated to resolving a political crisis through mediation between the government and the opposition instead of discussing the issues concerning Georgia’s integration to the Union.

This argument (that Georgian democracy has declined) is used in the recent article by Henrik Larsen, entitledWhy NATO Should Not Offer Ukraine and Georgia the Membership Action Plan.”

I am certain that even before, many politicians and their advisors in the West were not particularly enthusiastic about taking commitments for Georgia and simultaneously risking their financial interests with Russia. Now, however sadly, they can claim an actual pretext in order to support their position. As already mentioned above, countries have been admitted to NATO in the past despite their checkered democratic record but this was made possible because of their geopolitical value. Georgia, meanwhile, cannot show much to compensate for its democratic decline – its geopolitical (and geoeconomic) position has been gradually degrading as well and apparently by its own design: the concept that “Georgia should no longer represent an issue of contention between Russia and the West” was declared by this government even before coming to power. Unfortunately, the only way to deliver on this promise would be possible if Georgia stopped trying to play a regional role which made it valuable for the West (and its immediate neighbors).

In my opinion, the conclusion is not very promising: while the advocates of Georgia’s NATO membership and our allies should be supplied with solid arguments as to why Georgia deserves the MAP and eventual membership in NATO, we have given convenient pretexts to our opponents. Thus, we should not be too surprised if the Brussels Summit does not deliver much to Georgia.