Georgia wants to join NATO and appease Russia

In Georgia, the majority of the population is still in favour of NATO membership. At the same time, the government tries to appease neighbouring Russia. In praxis, the Association Agreement with the European Union has more impact in the country, making the EU more popular than NATO, Yegor Osipov-Gipsh reports from Tbilisi.

helen khoshtaria political party european georgiaHelen Khoshtaria, MP of 'European Georgia', the country’s biggest opposition party (pictures Yegor Osipov)

by Yegor Osipov-Gipsh

On Wednesday, March 21, 2018, in a rare bipartisan move, the Georgian Parliament passed the so-called ‘Tatunashvili-Otkhozoria’ sanction bill, named after Archil Tatunashvili, who died in South Ossetian custody on February 22, 2018, and Giga Otkhozoria, who was killed on the Georgian-Abkhaz separation line in 2016. The bill gives the government three months to prepare a list of individuals involved in the mistreating, kidnapping, torturing, and killing of Georgian citizens in the occupied provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. For those on the list, Georgia will seize their assets and property, and it will push its European partners to limit their ability to move and conduct financial operations in the EU.

Rare moment of consensus

The Tatunashvili-Otkhozoria bill was passed almost unanimously: out of 110 MPs registered to vote, 106 supported the bill, and no one voted against it. ‘This is an extremely rare example of us taking any common decision,’ says Helen Khoshtaria from European Georgia, the country’s biggest opposition party, as we speak in the Parliament in Kutaisi. Her party split last year from the party of the country's former president Mikheil Saakashvili. Referring to the quarrels between the ruling coalition, led by the Georgian Dream party, and the opposition, Khoshtaria alludes to their difference of opinion on Russia.

Since its creation in 2012, the Georgian Dream, united behind the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili and through opposition to the previous government of Saakashvili, manoeuvres between a pro-Western political course and the need to avoid further military escalation with Russia. But what the Georgian Dream presents as a cautious and smart policy, that, for instance, facilitated the return of Georgian wine and other goods to the Russian market, Khoshtaria considers as a consistent avoidance to address 'the Russian issue’. 'Generally, their policy towards Russia is much softer. From the very beginning they believed that the less they talk about the Russian problem, the less problems will arise. Our party, the European Georgia doesn't agree,’ she says.

Khostaria herself has been openly talking about the 'Russian problem' for many years. In 2004-2007, she was the Deputy Head of NATO Integration, and then headed the Euro-Atlantic Department in the Georgian ministry of Defence. From 2007 to 2012, she was the First Deputy State Minister, responsible for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration. In one of the WikiLeaks files, Khoshtaria is called ‘the fighter for Georgia in NATO’. Charismatic and well-educated, she was not the sole warrior: after the Rose Revolution (2003), with the support of numerous young and pro-Western politicians, Georgia introduced a myriad of reforms to make close cooperation with NATO, a course chosen by president Eduard Shevarnadze in the late 1990s, a reality.

Popular support for NATO

At the referendum in January 2008, 79.7% of Georgians supported NATO membership. Two months later, Russia lifted the 1996 CIS sanctions imposed on Abkhazia, and the Georgian province, together with South Ossetia, subsequently asked Russia to recognize its independence. At the NATO summit in Bucharest in April, Georgia was assured it could become a member in the distant future (‘not whether but when,’ said NATO-secretary-general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer). The U.S. and Poland pushed for further integration, but they were blocked by Germany and France, who preferred not to antagonize Russia and not to extend the alliance too far to the East.

Hostilities with South Ossetia continued and provocations escalated into a 5-day full-scale war with Russia, from August 7th to August 12th. By the end, president Saakashvili lost control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia entirely. Thousands of Georgians were expelled from the self-proclaimed republics, which were soon recognized by Russia as independent states.

This conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia and Abkhazia is often cited as the main reason that prevents the country’s full integration into NATO, which is still approved of by the majority — 62% — of the population. The decline in support (since 2012 it fluctuated between 60% and 80%) is mostly explained by the fear that further integration with the Atlantic Alliance will automatically lead to a new military conflict with Russia. Taking into account Russia's close military cooperation with Abkhazia and Ossetia, this fear is not unreasonable. But there is still a clear majority in favour of membership.

Khostaria objects to the common opinion that NATO cannot accept new members, who have ‘frozen conflicts’ within their borders: ‘There is no formal decision of NATO that a country cannot become a member, when it is in conflict or occupied. A 1995 study on NATO enlargement does suggest that conflict countries shouldn’t become members, but since it was a recommendation only, there is no formal ruling that countries like Georgia cannot become NATO members. On the contrary, NATO accepted Germany, when it was partly occupied, and the Turkish occupation of Cyprus in 1974, which happened after the country joined NATO, is still unresolved. Even in the Baltic states demarcation wasn’t over when they became members. Of course, NATO is wary of accepting countries, that have a situation of potential war, but there is an example [Germany – YG] when accepting the country in the bloc strengthened its security.’

While such arguments are not part of the discussion within NATO, an unusual voice was raised by Luke Coffey from the American conservative Heritage Foundation. He argues that Georgia can and should join NATO, with a specification that article 5 of the Alliance treaty (an attack on a NATO-member is considered as an attack against the Alliance) won’t apply to Abkhazia or South Ossetia. He believes this is not unrealistic and can be done by once again amending the article 6, just as it happened in 1951, when Turkey joined NATO.

georgian parliament in kutaisiThe Georgian parliament in Kutaisi

Although the majority of the population still favours joining NATO, the current government is not pursuing this path very actively. Even though in the framework of the Substantial NATO – Georgia Package (2014), it opened a 'Defence Institution Building School' and a ‘NATO – Georgia Joint Training and Evaluation Centre' (none of which host NATO soldiers), its political statements are becoming rarer.

‘I call this a post-Soviet syndrome,’ says Khoshtaria. ‘When you’re really afraid of Russia, you just try to hide. The government believes that they can please or appease Russia, and one of the ways of doing that is being not so active on NATO.’ Khoshtaria, essentially, is in favour of further integration. The conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are being used to stop Georgia from leaving what Russia sees as its sphere of influence, the Russkiy Mir (Russian World). ‘If we fall hostage to this Russian policy, these conflicts will never be resolved, because they exist to stop NATO enlargement. Effectively, NATO is granting Russia an informal veto power,’ she says.

East-West relations

The 'Georgian issue' is inevitably influenced by NATO-Russian relations, that changed after the annexation of Crimea. In 2014, the NATO-Russia Council was suspended until 2016; all practical communication was stopped, and since then, NATO has repeatedly condemned ‘Russia’s destabilizing actions and policies’ in Ukraine and beyond, including military intervention in Syria and ‘provocative actions’ along NATO borders.

At the same time, the Western sanctions against Russia led to a new international political reality, which was unthinkable a few years ago, when, during the brief moment of Perezagruzka, the issue of Georgia’s integration into the Alliance disappeared from the Western agenda. It creates room for the West to reconsider its attitude towards Russia, believes Khoshtaria: ‘Joining NATO is a difficult step, not only because of Russia's obvious opposition. Europe and the U.S. have no comprehensive policy towards Russia yet, it is gradually taking shape. After the Ukrainian war, the West is quicker in grasping Russia’s nature. They begin to realize that the conflict in Georgia was not just a conflict in Abkhazia or South Ossetia, but the launch of a series of conflicts.’ For Khoshtaria, ‘the sooner the West understands Russia’s real interests, the more chances Georgia has to become a NATO member.’

Even if this will never happen, Georgia will have comprehensive and close cooperation with NATO and will be able to rely on the non-combat support of the Alliance more than any other Caucasian country. Nobody in NATO is questioning Georgia's efforts to reform since the Rose Revolution, and, most importantly, the quality of the Georgian army’s training. Nevertheless, its army is no match for the Russian forces. And even if NATO-membership will disappear from the agenda, Khoshtaria pleads for 'integration with both NATO and the EU to the extent that is possible.’

Georgia’s integration with NATO and the EU is often seen as an interconnected process, and there are indeed congruities in the fields of security and risk management. However, the biggest impact of the EU on Georgia is in the areas of human rights and economic development. 'After signing the Association Agreement, Georgia saw an increase in trade with the EU,' says Sergi Kapanadze, the deputy chairman of the Parliament, vice-speaker  from the European Georgia and former chief negotiator of the Association Agreement.

Indeed, in 2016, the EU was the largest trade partner of Georgia (30% of ex- and imports, for a total amount of EUR 2.52 billion). Georgia’s other substantial trade partners are Turkey (13%, EUR 1.37 billion) and Russia (7.5%, EUR 796 million), with Canada being the country’s second biggest importer (18.6%, or EUR 1.6 billion).

The first half of 2017 saw an increase in EU imports from Georgia by 56%, and an increase of EU exports to Georgia by 2%. Due to its obligations as partner of the Association Agreement, Georgia continues to carry out numerous reforms in such fields as industrial and enterprise policy, financial services, rural development, and agriculture. The country’s biggest problems — unemployment and poverty — are also being tackled, and their levels are gradually decreasing. In 2016, the unemployment rate was 11.8% (in 2009 it was 16.9%). 21.3% of the population, in 2016, was living below the poverty line (in 2004 it was 32.6%).

Visa-free travel

Since March 2017, Georgians with biometric passports can travel to the Schengen area without visas. With low-cost airlines offering flights to major European cities, more and more do so. Many go looking for jobs and try to settle in the EU as well. Since Russia did not lift its strict visa requirements for Georgian citizens, imposed in the aftermath of the 2008 war, the EU is becoming the major destination for them. The next step, Khoshtaria believes, could be negotiating working permits for Georgian citizens.

Free movement is one of the major factors that contribute to the Georgians’ strong support for EU integration. Around 72% of the population approves of this policy, substantially higher then the support for NATO membership. This is understandable: its military security is more abstract than trade and free movement of EU integration. Kapanadze sees this overwhelming popular support, together with the country’s obligations stipulated by the Agreement, as the main barrier preventing it from falling back into the Russian sphere of influence. ‘We can’t have something like in Ukraine of Yanukovich, when half of the country wanted to turn to Russia, and the other half to the EU,' says Kapanadze. 'Another major thing is that through the Agreement we’re in a conditionality-driven process with the EU. We are in "handcuffs", in a positive way. Even though we still have a lot of problems like oppression of opposition, and political arrests, for example of the former prime-minister, by and large, the government is constrained.’

Trump-cards for Putin

Although the benefits of the EU are clearer to ordinary citizens than those of NATO, there is no talk about Georgia joining the Union. This increasingly helps pro-Russian forces. For the first time in many years, an openly pro-Russian, or, rather, pro-Russkiy-Mir party, the Patriots Alliance, has made it into parliament, winning 6 seats. Its pro-Russian message comes with anti-Turkish, anti-Muslim, and racist rhetoric. The Alliance’s leader, Davit Tarkhan-Mouravi, described as ‘a friend to and instrumental figure’ of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the oligarch who controls the governing Georgian Dream party, hosts his own TV show, where he gives talks about Orthodox Christianity and Georgia’s own civilizational path. In the 2016 hate speech monitoring report by a Georgian NGO Media Development Foundation, the Patriots Alliance, with 77 instances, is on top of the list of hate speech remarks, with the Georgian Dream being second (54).

Being pro-Russian in Georgia, where the collective trauma of the 'loss of the territories' to Russia is very strong, is framed in the fight between 'Orthodox' and ‘traditional’ values and the freedom of choice, be it one's identity, or the country’s political course. In this respect, the Patriots Alliance is using the same rhetoric as other guardians of ‘traditional values’, such as the Ukrainian nationalists, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, or even Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, all of whom believe they are fighting a sacred war against some ‘morally weak and pervasive West’.

But it is not only the Patriots that use this rhetoric — the formally pro-Western ruling coalition turns to it as well. For instance, the government publicly blamed the EU for the obligation to pass a package of laws against discrimination, even though it was openly on the agenda during the negotiations of the Association Agreement. Last year, the Georgian Dream coalition also amended the Constitution by introducing the definition of marriage, which previously was only part of the civil code, as the union between a man and a woman. Even though gay marriage is not a matter of political debate in Georgia, the government still felt the urge to take a definitive pro-Orthodox and pro-traditional stance long in advance, so strong was the internal, even psychological pressure. And if one remembers the vanguard role that Russia takes in promoting the 'traditional values' worldview, the current shift in Georgian Dream's manoeuvring looks as a great deviation from the usual amplitude.