This week, NATO leaders gathered to discuss security guarantees for Ukraine in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. While Ukraine was again promised that it would be admitted to NATO when “allies agree and conditions are met,” Georgia was urged to “work on the reforms”.
With a devastating war raging in Ukraine, there are fears that Georgia could be Moscow’s next target, prompting the Georgian government to recalibrate its rhetoric about NATO membership.
‘NATO fatigue’ in Georgia
“Had Georgia already been a NATO member in 2008, there would have been no war and no Russian occupation either. Georgia seems to be hitting the glass door,” according to Georgia’s parliament chairman, Shalva Papuashvili.
Georgia fought a war with Russia in August 2008. Following the five-day military conflict, the Kremlin announced that it had recognized the independence of the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, and Russian troops are stationed there to this day.
At a NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008, the alliance said both Georgia and Ukraine could eventually join but did not provide a clear path to membership. In a communique released on Tuesday in Vilnius, NATO reaffirmed that Bucharest agreement.
Fifteen years after the promise made in Bucharest, Georgia has not received any concrete time frame for or pathway to membership. Kornely Kakachia, the director of the Georgian Institute of Politics, told DW that this has led to “NATO fatigue.”
“Georgia was the first victim of a Russian invasion, one of the front-runners in NATO missions like Iraq and Afghanistan, where it sacrificed its soldiers,” Kakachia said. “Georgia was waiting for NATO to reward that.”
Undermining NATO ambitions
Experts say NATO membership entails more than military contributions: It requires strong and long-term political commitment, which seems to be a weak spot for Georgian politicians.
Though Tbilisi officially maintains its commitment to the Euro-Atlantic path, the government has gone on record with statements that appear to undermine that ambition.
“I think everybody knows the reason,” Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said at the Global Security Forum in Bratislava when asked about the reasons behind Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “One of the main reasons was NATO: NATO enlargement. Therefore, we see the consequences.”
The statement triggered a backlash both at home and abroad.
“It is hard to imagine NATO embracing a country whose prime minister, echoing Putin’s rhetoric, blames the Alliance for the war in Ukraine,” Nata Koridze, a former diplomat who worked closely with NATO, wrote in an op-ed for a Georgian media platform, Civil.ge.
Georgia’s prime minister did not attend the Vilnius summit. Media reports suggest that he’d been explicitly asked not to. Georgia instead sent Foreign Minister Ilia Darchiashvili.
‘Short of membership’
Eka Akobia, the director of Peace Studies at Caucasus University, said NATO’s reluctance with Georgia had to do with its border with Russia.
Though NATO must maintain its open-door policy, it “does not want to cause trouble with the enlargement and thus comes up with various formulas for aspirant countries, short of membership.”
Yet Georgia faces yet another barrier to joining NATO. The conventional view is that a country with an ongoing military conflict or with parts occupied by another country can’t join the alliance. Some pundits suggest Georgian authorities launch a bid to join without the Moscow-controlled regions and with the option of future extension once Tbilisi regains control of those regions.
Bringing back ties with Russia
Georgia watchers say the country has been shifting back into Russia’s orbit. Critics of the current government claim that such a shift is linked to the founder of the ruling party, Georgian Dream, and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. Ivanishvili is a businessman who made his fortune in 1990s in Russia. Even though he officially left politics, he continues to pull the strings from behind.
Since last year, trade relations between Tbilisi and Moscow have become closer, which sparked concern about the potential for sanctions evasion through Georgian territory, putting in turn a strain on Georgia’s ties with Ukraine and its allies.
“It is important that Georgia lives up to the democratic values we all believe in,” NATO Secretary General Jen Stoltenberg said in May. “And, of course, we also expect non-NATO allies to adhere to the sanctions and not make it easier for Russia to finance and organize the war of aggression against Ukraine.”
Political analyst Kakachia said that, considering recent foreign policy choices, Georgia’s partners in the West might think that Tbilisi “has to fix its moral compass in regard to Ukraine and its policy towards Russia.” He added that Georgia’s future depends on the outcome of the war in Ukraine.
“Because of its geographical vulnerability, Georgia has to jump over its head to stay on Western radars,” he said. “If Ukraine wins the war, that will be a game changer for Georgia’s NATO accession.”