Living up to his reputation as an ambitious goal-setter, Georgian prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili opined in late April that 2014 would be the year that the South Caucasus country might finally receive its long-coveted Membership Action Plan (MAP) to join NATO.
“Next year we should undertake a very vigorous step and get at least MAP,” he said. “We have strictly set MAP as a target and next year when there is a gathering of NATO [leaders] we should undertake a powerful step in this direction.”
While it’s much too early to be confident about the prime minister’s predictions, Georgia’s bid is in some ways an open-and-shut case. Were it to join today, Georgia’s nearly 1,600 troops in Afghanistan would be the sixth-largest contributor to the ISAF operation, where it already outranks contingents from big powers like France (459), Canada (950), and Spain (1,249). Though a small and still-developing country, Georgia’s defense spending, at 2.9 percent of GDP, is nearly a full point higher than the baseline 2 percent target set by NATO, which only the United States, the UK, France, Greece and Turkey see fit to observe—to the growing consternation of Alliance brass. And the peaceful transfer of power facilitated by last fall’s parliamentary elections seems to have at least partially put the country back on a path to democratic development, a key metric being closely watched by NATO officials.
But while the Caucasus nation does well in ticking off all the boxes, its overall value proposition remains a hard sell to some Alliance members. After Georgia lost a bruising war with Russia in 2008—shortly after its NATO membership application was put on hold earlier that year—Moscow carved out protectorates in legal Georgian territory, rendering it technically under occupation. Between that and the relative ease with which Russian forces were able to dispatch their Georgian counterparts (although the war revealed some severe weaknesses within the Russian military as well, despite holding nearly every advantage), Georgia looks a lot less like a security contributor and more like another consumer.
It is the fine details of this calculation that deserve the focus of Georgian arguments and preparations for NATO membership. How can Tbilisi overcome the disadvantage of being a small country with a small military with 20 percent of its de jure territory garrisoned by its giant neighbor to the north, Russia?
Since coming to power in October, the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition government has sought to turn the balance of this equation in Georgia’s favor. In this regard, the new government has made overtures to Russia and embarked on a military-reform program in an effort to reduce the prospect of another war and bolster its case for NATO membership. Recognizing that the often bellicose tone towards Moscow struck by the previous United National Movement (UNM) government had done little to advance Tbilisi’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations, the Georgian Dream government is pushing to normalize ties with Russia. This also happens to dovetail well with GD’s drive to create new, broader-based economic-development opportunities.
This approach shows signs of bearing fruit. While the two countries’ relations remain best characterized as frosty—invading and seizing territory can do that—relations between Tbilisi and Moscow have taken on a more pragmatic, constructive tone. For example, Georgian wines and mineral water, embargoed by Russia since 2006 under the unlikely pretense of food safety, are finally returning to Russian markets.
While the underlying conflict between Georgia and Russia remains largely intractable, as Tbilisi understandably considers its independence and territorial integrity non-negotiable, the new approach has had real effects. Ratcheting down tensions and forswearing the use of armed force in the conflict regions (announced by President Mikheil Saakashvili in 2010 and continued by the new government) has not only revitalized trade links between the two states, but also put the prospect of renewed open conflict behind them. Such measures should help make Georgia’s NATO bid an easier sell.
But equally important—and perhaps more impressive—are reforms being undertaken by Irakli Alasania’s Ministry of Defense. Seeking to boost its overall effectiveness, the ministry is taking a two-pronged approach that emphasizes military capability on one hand and responsive, open government on the other.
Learning lessons from the 2008 war, in which heroics by individual units were overshadowed by systemic command and control breakdowns, Alasania has authorized a study of 2008’s operational failures to inform long-term planning. The ministry is also taking the Atlantic Alliance’s “smart defense” doctrine to heart. The military is phasing out its post-Soviet, mixed-conscription force structure in favor of an all-professional, Western-trained active force supported by a more robust, tri-level reserve system.
Battle-tested during stability operations in Iraq and now Afghanistan, the next iteration of the Georgian military should be both better suited for territorial defense and well-oriented to the type of operations that NATO and the EU increasingly emphasize. As a case in point, EU chief Catherine Ashton has requested that Georgia consider participating in EU-led stabilization operations in Mali. Despite already taking on a massive load in Afghanistan, Georgia has agreed to send at least some personnel to take part.
“Georgia has declaratively said that it wants to be part of the European family,” Alasania explained to me in a recent phone call. “The EU was the first to send their monitors after the [2008 war], so we felt that engaging the EU security structure deserved the same priority level as NATO.”
But what has been particularly well-noticed by NATO and Western officials are the efforts being made to spread democratic practices. In the defense ministry, Alasania has created transparency working groups and engaged Transparency International Georgia to provide an interim report on progress. In a break from previous practices, Alasania claims that the once blurry divisions between the defense and interior ministries are being clarified and firmly delineated to prevent abuse.
Also significantly, the ministry has taken the unusual step of drafting legislation to increase its own oversight from parliament. The justice ministry, another major area being closely watched abroad, is also undertaking a number of important reforms. One senior NATO official, specifically highlighting such initiatives, even said that the new government was “pushing harder [towards Euro-Atlantic integration] in some ways” compared to their predecessors.
Between a pragmatic foreign-policy outlook and a capabilities-oriented approach to defense, Georgia is slowly but surely overturning a reputation as a liability into that of an asset. Even once-skeptical Alliance members are reportedly re-evaluating their position in light of Tbilisi’s progress. While it’s too early to say if Ivanishvili’s ambitious 2014 target for a Membership Action Plan is realistic, the pace and depth of such reforms could make Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations a stronger bet and an increasingly desirable one as well.
Michael Cecire is an independent Caucasus analyst and an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.