To bring Godot, wait for Godot. Georgia and the Warsaw Summit
Considering the harsh realities of international politics, the Warsaw Summit has constituted a success of Georgia’s foreign policy. Georgia, as it has been widely expected, has not been invited to join the Membership Action Plan. Although, each post-Bucharest NATO Summit, like the messenger boy in Godot, reminds us that NATO membership ‘will not come this evening but surely tomorrow’. Despite this, Georgia should realise that steadily waiting for Godot is the only way to ensure that Godot arrives.
Waiting, however, makes Georgia increasingly strong. Apart from once again solidifying the Bucharest Summit’s decision that Georgia will become a member of NATO, the Warsaw Summit strengthened Georgia’s position in two major respects: 1) Georgia, together with Ukraine, will be engaged in shaping NATO’s future approach and policies aimed at ensuring security and stability in the Black Sea Region; 2) Together with fostering Georgia’s crisis management capabilities and strategic communications, NATO will assist the country in developing its air defence and air surveillance systems. Moreover, conducting joint exercises on Georgian soil with the United States’ and United Kingdom’s forces as well as participating in the NATO-led missions increase the interoperability of the Georgian army with NATO forces. NATO-Georgian Commission with the Annual National Program and the Substantial Package with Joint Training and Evaluation Center and Defense Institution Building School are the practical tools that prepare Georgia for the eventual NATO membership. In other words, in substance, Georgia is already given a Membership Action Plan, although outside of the official framework.
NATO-Georgian relations are continuously gaining a new dynamism. Since 1994, when the country first joined the Partnership for Peace program, Georgia has gradually transformed into one of the most valuable NATO partners. Georgia has done and is doing its bit in safeguarding Euro-Atlantic security together with NATO and US forces in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. In recognition of the progress that has been achieved, Georgia, together with Finland, Australia, Jordan and Sweden, has been designated an Enhanced Opportunity Partner. Georgia also contributes to the NATO Response Force (NRF) and holds joint exercises with allies to advance the interoperability and readiness of the Georgian armed forces. Moreover, Georgia hosts a NATO liaison office in its capital, which helps the country to enact necessary reforms and enhance cooperation with NATO. Hence, there is more of Georgia in NATO and more of NATO in Georgia.
On the other hand, all recent NATO aspirant countries, except for Georgia, have been invited to join the Membership Action Plan. Georgia’s case has been rather distinct. The Bucharest Summit decision puts Georgia, and Ukraine for that matter, on a very different path towards NATO membership. Having said that, the experiences of other aspirant states may not be helpful in determining the dynamics of NATO-Georgian relations. To advance its relations with NATO, Georgia should go through the Membership Action Plan (MAP) phase, although given the existing “practical tools”, the MAP phase may not be as lengthy for Georgia as it has been for other aspirant countries.
While waiting, Georgia is becoming even more democratic and institutionally stable. Georgia’s attachment to Euro-Atlantic integration keeps the country committed to the process of consolidating democracy and improving governance. The upcoming elections are expected to be yet another opportunity for Georgia to demonstrate to the Alliance that it is a democratically reliable partner that deserves to be part of the Western security community.
However, before Georgia joins NATO, it will need to face a number of challenges that should not be ignored. The rise of pro-Russian populist parties and the much-discussed possibility that the public will change its mind on NATO membership are among the most significant obstacles the country will have to address. Nevertheless, those challenges can be addressed if the government of Georgia manages to effectively and strategically communicate with the public. Recent polls support this argument. While some polls have suggested that 31 per cent of Georgians are considering the Russian-led Eurasian Union as an alternative integration pole, the same polls indicate that 68 per cent of respondents think that Russia should have low or no political influence on Georgia. Moreover, the recent 2016 polls administered by the National Democratic Institute illustrate negligible public support for political parties that are considered to be pro-Russian forces in Georgia. This by no means implies that the threats coming from Russia should be overlooked – quite the contrary. However, the suggested U-turn towards Russia amid the frustration with NATO integration processes is often overestimated. Although there might have been small bumps in the road, since 1999 the Georgian political elite as well as the public remain strongly committed to the Euro-Atlantic choice. The plebiscite on NATO membership in 2008 (77 per cent in favor), the Parliamentary resolution on the Basic Directions of Georgia’s Foreign Policy in 2013, and the pre-Warsaw Summit All-Party Declaration on Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic Integration are further evidence of this.
As the West is trying not to antagonise Russia, Georgia is reminded of the “strategic patience” it needs to embrace. Strategic patience may not be a desirable option for Tbilisi, but since Georgia is unable to change the patterns of international politics to its favor, it is reasonable to wait until “the time is right”. To Georgia’s benefit, the Warsaw Summit has demonstrated that NATO not only talks the talk when it comes to dealing with the revisionist Russia, but also, by deploying armed forces to Eastern Europe, NATO has started to realise that in order to deter a resurgent Russia, walking the walk is essential.
Despite the hurdles on the road to NATO, the only way Georgia can maximise its security and maintain its sovereignty is through advancing cooperation with the Euro-Atlantic institutions. The Warsaw Summit has further laid a good foundation that needs to be fully exploited. The upcoming visit of the North Atlantic Council to Georgia as well as the signing of the Memorandum on Deepening the Defense and Security Partnership between the United States of America and Georgia illustrate that Georgia’s foreign policy is gradually bearing fruit.
For some, Georgia’s NATO membership is like waiting for Godot. However, in the international realm, if the circumstances allow it, the likelihood of Godot arriving is more than real. The history of international relations, and the history of NATO enlargement for that matter, show that if the circumstances and politics are right, a state is well-prepared to use the opportunities when they appear. Then, as Samuel Beckett’s classic play comes to an end, if they appear, “we will be saved”.
Irakli Sirbiladze holds an MA in International Relations from Queen Mary University of London