As the Warsaw NATO Summit approaches, the contested notion of Georgia’s membership in NATO does not seem to be receiving much support. However, within the context of current debates on the future of the alliance, it is crucial to discuss how the case of Georgia impacts the alliance, the European integration, as well as the question of who we are and what we represent.
The FYROM lesson
Over two decades after the collapse of communism, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the break-up of Yugoslavia, the idea that liberal change is possible and that peoples’ lives can be greatly improved by democratisation, economic liberalisation and guarantees of peace falls short on delivery today. The examples of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary prove that establishing firm external institutional anchors can, on the one hand, define and consolidate the direction of the reform process and, on the other, facilitate social mobilisation and the support necessary for that reform process to be successful. The same institutional anchors, however, are currently being denied to others, including Georgia.
Certainly, the institutionalisation of external relations is a two-way street and the promise of an anchor comes at the sweet price of compliance with certain norms, rules and values. Practice shows that political stability in countries that have to re-establish their statehood or build their claims to statehood from scratch is not to be taken for granted. The example of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) is a case in point. Having avoided civil war in 2001, in itself an underrated and underreported story in today’s accounts of European history, and having failed to receive an invitation to join NATO in 1998, FYROM has become a victim of reform backsliding and political drifting.
Georgia, however, is not FYROM. In fact in several respects the country has successfully implemented governance standards above those that constitute the norm in several EU members, e.g. transparent and efficient public administration, e-government and cyber-security standards. The country has been largely successful in modernising its economy, society and politics and hence has rebuilt its image as a vibrant country and important partner of the trans-Atlantic community. However, the weight of external pressures and their impact on Georgia’s domestic political developments should not be underestimated. If there is a lesson to be learned from FYROM’s case, it is time to learn it today.
NATO and Georgia’s membership
There are two ways of looking at the issue of Georgia’s NATO membership. On the one hand, similarly to Poland’s case and that of the Baltic countries, the key argument, even if at times only implicit, is the fear of Russia. Here, the narrative goes, a possible admission of Georgia into NATO would cause unnecessary tensions between Russia and the Alliance. Indeed, what happened in 2008 was arguably a direct result of the provisional promise of Georgia’s NATO membership. However, this argument is not without problems, as the construction of NATO bases in Poland and Romania would do just that – antagonise Russia; yet the plan is under way.
History may not be going in circles, yet we can still learn from it as well as from our prior actions, mistakes included. In 1992, Russia opposed eastward NATO expansion and the invitation of countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic to join the alliance invoking arguments of spheres of influence. In 1994, Russia opposed Lithuania’s request to join NATO, arguing that extending the alliance so close to its borders could destabilise the entire region. These arguments are as frequently employed in today’s Russia as they were 20 years ago, with the only difference being that today nostalgia for the USSR, the resurgence of Stalin’s cult and overall fierce reactive conservatism have been more skilfully exploited to support Putin’s policies.
Another difference is that back then, in response to Russia’s objections in all cases, an implicit “back off” resounded, with a particular role played by Bill Clinton, Manfred Wörner, Aleksander Kwaśniewski and Lech Wałęsa. What happened next is history, as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999 and the Baltic countries followed suit in 2004. Retrospectively, the interesting question is what would have happened if the West had had its moment of doubt at that time. Georgia is not Poland, Hungary or the Czech Republic and, after all, may also be less lucky. If the atmosphere surrounding the NATO Warsaw summit is reminiscent of the spirit of the days back in the 1990s, the stakes – due to the annexation of Crimea and the political paralysis of the EU – seem to be higher today than they were back then. The question remains if anyone decides to support Georgia’s and others’ NATO aspirations.
The two-pronged message to Russia
By acting as they do, NATO members convey a two-pronged message to Russia. Firstly, that NATO is weak and that it has lost its military character and capacity. Indeed, this is how NATO’s involvement in the search-and-rescue operation in the Aegean was read by its adversaries, who rubbed their hands with every other Russian shell falling on civilians in Syria while NATO vessels were stationed nearby.
The second message is that NATO is divided. Clearly, the hybrid-warfare challenge on NATO’s eastern flank has only made it more apparent that a considerable chasm exists between NATO’s engagement on its eastern and southern flanks. For instance, Greece has long been experiencing a dubious state of affairs where NATO has adopted an “equidistant approach” to notorious airspace and territorial waters violations committed by Turkey over the years. From a different angle, the nexus between the challenges on NATO’s southern and eastern flanks has been long ignored. For example, it was inconceivable for many experts that such a connection existed, until Russia decided to run military exercises in Serbia in 2015 and engaged militarily in Syria, causing tensions with Turkey, a NATO member. Having NATO send vessels to the Aegean, where, due to international law considerations, NATO’s mandate was limited, deploying significant human resources to Greek islands, essentially too late and to little avail, and simultaneously disclosing plans regarding strengthening NATO’s presence in Poland and Romania, have confirmed that several issues in NATO’s way of functioning need a serious rethink.
To be or not to be…
It is not particularly fashionable to suggest that by failing to support Georgia’s NATO membership bid, NATO members de facto have accepted the logic of the game and the status quo dictated by Russia. Similarly, it is not common to argue that over the years NATO has become a permissive role-taker in a curious relationship of opportunism, appeasement and implicit fear that has evolved between the West and Russia since the late 1990s. There is no point in denying the above points, particularly when confronted with the ever more pervasive arguments suggesting that a new Cold War has arrived. Clearly, the argument is being employed as the most honourable way of admitting that we have in fact been on the leash, and that we want to do something about it. The problem, however, is that as the Cold War argument unfolds and resonates particularly well in the hearts and minds of those who have never experienced it hands on, a space is being opened (and for that matter connivance as well) for arguments suggesting that nuclear weapons be stationed on NATO’s eastern flank, especially Poland.
Having said that, if the West recognises that the prospect of Georgia’s NATO membership may be considered by Russia as harmful to its sphere of influence, why is there no similar restraint when it comes to plans regarding stationing nuclear weapons in Poland? There is no doubt that Russia constitutes a threat today, especially to the very values upon which the Euro-Atlantic community has been built. The example of Georgia is a case in point.
Anna Visvizi, Ph.D., is the Head of Research at the Institute of East-Central Europe (IESW) and assistant professor at DEREE-The American College of Greece.