Georgia sidesteps NATO in risky political game

By Tengo Gogotishvili

Protesters wave Georgian, Ukrainian and NATO flags in Tbilisi during a March 7 demonstration opposing a controversial 'foreign agents' bill. Georgian police used tear gas and water cannons against protesters. [AFP]

Protesters wave Georgian, Ukrainian and NATO flags in Tbilisi during a March 7 demonstration opposing a controversial 'foreign agents' bill. Georgian police used tear gas and water cannons against protesters. [AFP]

TBILISI -- After levelling a barrage of rhetorical attacks on the leaders of the European Union (EU) and certain Western nations, Georgian authorities have turned their attention to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

The Georgian Dream party was first elected in 2012 and has pursued a pro-Kremlin policy ever since.

These attacks are not as pointed as those by Russian and Belarusian presidents Vladimir Putin and Alyaksandr Lukashenka, but they are unambiguous enough to make it clear that Tbilisi will not move closer to NATO on NATO's terms.

Repeating verbatim the propaganda spouted by Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said " of the reasons [for Russia's assault on Ukraine] was Ukraine's desire to become a member of NATO".

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg give a joint statement at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on April 25. [Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP]

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg give a joint statement at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on April 25. [Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP]

His comments, delivered during a May 30 speech in Bratislava, Slovakia, provoked open laughter from the entire GLOBSEC forum.

Relations between NATO and Georgia took a sharp downturn in May, when NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg's special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia left Tbilisi without meeting with Garibashvili.

Javier Colomina had even extended his visit, staying in Georgia for an extra day in the hope of obtaining an audience with Garibashvili.

With the apparent snub, Garibashvili reminded NATO that Georgia's leaders will decide for themselves what to do and whom to befriend. Or not to befriend.

A step away from NATO

"We do not like Moscow's unilateral decision to resume flights," Colomina told everyone with whom he managed to confer in Georgia, referring to Russia's unilateral resumption of nonstop flights between it and Georgia after a four-year ban.

"But we are more concerned about the reaction of certain representatives of the (Georgian) parliament and government," he said, according to Voice of America (VOA)'s Georgian service. "We must have a clear position and stand side by side with Ukraine."

It appears that Garibashvili, who has been recalcitrant in his refusal to join the international community in imposing sanctions on Russia, would be displeased to hear another call for solidarity with Ukraine and the West.

After all, double-digit economic growth has been achieved, thanks in large part, to the tens of thousands of Russians who flooded into Georgia after many other destinations were closed to them.

Georgia's trade with Russia "in 2022 exceeded $2.4 billion, up 52% from 2021", Azernews reported in January, quoting TASS.

"The only objective of Georgian Dream (the ruling party) is to stay in power," political scientist Giorgi Gobronidze said. "And they will be on the side of the foreign powers that offer to assist them in this."

But this choice will have far-reaching consequences, he cautioned.

"If they have to co-operate with the West, sooner or later the country will open up," he explained. "If they remain in Russia's orbit, the country will close forever."

It is possible that Georgia can chart its own course as a "real" democracy. But according to Colomina, the reform process has stalled over the past 18 months.

"This applies to judicial reforms, electoral reforms, the security sector," he said.

"The leadership of NATO and EU is explicitly telling Georgian authorities that without judicial reforms, the rule of law, and freedom of speech, there will be no progress," Atlantic Council of Georgia executive director and former Georgian deputy defence minister Giorgi Muchaidze told Caravanserai.

Pathway to NATO membership

At the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, NATO supported Georgia's application for the Membership Action Plan. It received assurances from the alliance that eventually it would become a member.

After the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, NATO established other mechanisms to help Georgia achieve NATO membership, including the NATO-Georgia Commission and the Annual National Programme.

NATO has continued to stand by the written pledge made in Bucharest.

In remarks to Caravanserai, Zaza Gogava, former chief of staff of the Georgian military, made his displeasure with Georgian Dream's actions clear.

"We lost 32 servicemen in NATO missions in over 20 years. Now it turns out that they didn't die for our allies, for our interests?" he said.

"We are accountable to these guys, to their families. And can we tell them today that NATO and the country's security are no longer important?"

In April, Georgia did not appear on the list of participants in the multinational DEFENDER 2023 exercises conducted by the US military's European Command.

It was the first time Georgia has missed the manoeuvres, according to Tina Khidasheli, former defence minister.

Minister of Defence Juansher Burchuladze meanwhile gave muddled answers when asked about Georgia's failure to participate in the drill.

Georgia's decision to sit out the exercise was a money-saving measure, since sending troops would be an expensive indulgence, he suggested.

But this is simply not true, Khidasheli told Caravanserai.

"The host always pays for our participation in such manoeuvres. It costs us absolutely nothing," Khidasheli said.

Euro-Atlantic family values

In a statement following the June arrests of peaceful demonstrators in front of Georgia's parliament, the US State Department said "a lack of tolerance for dissent is inconsistent with the values of the Euro-Atlantic family of nations".

The majority of Georgians wish to join this family, it noted.

One Georgian seems less keen on the prospect of joining the family: Garibashvili declined to participate in the NATO summit to be held in Vilnius, Lithuania, July 11-12, where victory for Ukraine will be a central focus.

But the foreign minister will go to Vilnius in his place. At least the Georgian delegation will not be represented by a sea of empty chairs, though it may make empty promises -- of reforms and Euro-Atlantic integration.

"Georgia is no longer a NATO aspirant. That's how I understand it," said Ben Hodges, former commander of the US Army in Europe, after the GLOBSEC forum in an interview with VOA's Georgian service.

"It seems to me that the prime minister of Georgia does not want Georgia to become a member of NATO," he said. "He is using the Kremlin's narrative to explain what is happening in Ukraine."

"Twenty percent of Georgia is occupied by Russia, and [Garibashvili] has no desire to restore the integrity of the country."

"Georgia's choice to align with the aggressor and occupier appears particularly strange," Georgian Strategic Analysis Centre scholar Gela Vasadze told Caravanserai, decrying the promotion, preservation and prolongation of "Putin's empire".

"No one knows exactly how regional powers will behave in an arrangement that does not include Russia, and more important, how global powers -- to be more precise, Washington and Beijing -- will behave in relation to regional powers."

"If the Russian empire is preserved, there will be no peace," he said.

"There will be an armistice with a front running along the borders of 1991. In the South Caucasus, the status quo will continue for some time, maybe even a long time, and then everything will begin all over again."

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They believe living under the Kremlin's thumb is excellent for an unknown reason. Yeah, what a glorious plan! Keep pursuing your dumb short-sighted politics; after all, who are we to question the wisdom of the Great Leader?


Well, the Georgian government has learned the lesson from Putin, our great teacher. It's not about NATO; who needs the international community's support when you can sit in the Kremlin's warm hugs? What could go wrong?


It's quite remarkable that Putin reproached French President Emmanuel Macron in early 2022 for Ukraine's aspiration to join the Treaty of Rome, saying it was purportedly "a threat to Russian security." But wait a minute! The Treaty of Rome of 1957 brought about the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC), while NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization), a Defensive union, was founded by the treaty signed in Washington in 1949. Does that mean the Kremlin considers even a hypothetical free trade association between Ukraine and the EU a threat? I don't know what is more amusing here - the ignorance or the insolence? But it's a thankless task to look for reasoning from the current Fuhrer. "You are at fault that I am famished."