Within the framework of the Chicago Summit, no concrete steps were taken to put Georgia on the path toward membership. That the twenty-fifth NATO summit would not be an enlargement summit was well known in advance. Georgia did, however, yet again receive positive signals from NATO – acknowledgment of the country’s progress and reaffirmation that Georgia will become a member of the Alliance. Positive signals were also sent to other aspirant countries though they will also have to wait.
Foreign ministers of Georgia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina met with their NATO counterparts on the final day of the two-day summit. Putting Georgia on the list of aspirants along with the three Balkan States was a novelty of the Chicago Summit. The Balkan States are considered close to NATO membership and so grouping Georgia with them has been viewed as headway. “Georgia has moved from our region into the Balkan region. Actually, an informal club has been set up and everyone knows that these three Balkan States will in any case become members of NATO,” Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said after the Chicago Summit.
Earlier, Georgia had been teamed with Ukraine in NATO discussions on membership expansion. In Ukraine, however, the political situation has changed and, with it, the country’s priorities; its aspiration toward NATO has been dropped at this stage. Teaming Georgia and Ukraine had its pros as well as its cons. On the one hand, Ukraine failed to implement necessary reforms and lacked political will as well as popular consensus regarding NATO integration. On the other hand, the country with fifty million population is important in terms of its geostrategic significance and military capacity. Ukraine also has large diasporas in NATO member-states with a strong lobby backing integration into the Alliance.
All four aspirant countries face somewhat different challenges on their respective paths to integration. It is no secret that Russia is firmly against Georgia’s membership into NATO. Macedonia also faces problems of a geopolitical nature: Macedonia was awarded the Membership Action Plan (MAP) as far back as 1999, but still cannot make it into the Alliance because the country refuses to accede to Greece’s demands that Macedonia change its name. That seemingly comical demand has deep historical roots and is propped up by strong nationalistic sentiments. The fate of Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina depends on the implementation-continuation of domestic reforms. Bosnia-Herzegovina is supposed to amend its Constitution. Like Macedonia, Montenegro has already been awarded MAP.
Before the start of the Chicago Summit, NATO was repeatedly urged to take concrete steps toward integration of aspirant countries into the Alliance. Former U.S. defense secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and William Cohen, as well as former U.S. National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, sent an open letter on that issue to Barack Obama. “Today, NATO is at a crossroads. As defense spending among NATO members falls, new aspirant nations in Southeastern Europe will provide needed manpower and resources to the Alliance. And while the region has made steady progress since the conflicts of the 1990s, stability in the Balkans cannot be taken for granted,” they wrote. “We cannot afford to send mixed messages to those nations that are willing to stand up and be counted.” Among those countries, they named Georgia as well.
Other supporters of speedy integration of the Baltic States into NATO argue that the recent election of ultranationalist Tomislav Nikolic as the president of Serbia serves as a warning that aspirant countries will backslide unless Western organizations fully support their integration.
Damon Wilson, executive vice president of the Atlantic Council, also contends that the four aspirant countries should have made headway at the Chicago Summit – not only because they deserved that, but also because that would contribute to stabilization of the regions and to Trans-Atlantic security.
Georgia’s NATO aspiration is supported in the U.S. Congress as well. For example, Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, called on the Obama Administration prior to the Summit to work with allies toenable Georgia to join the Alliance within the shortest possible time span. She emphasized the strategic importance of Georgia as well as the significance of the country’s security and sovereignty. For her part, Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen asserted that Georgia deserves to advance on its path toward NATO membership and that NATO could prove its open door policy is real by rewarding countries like Georgia.
The final declaration of the Chicago Summit allocated three paragraphs to Georgia. NATO once again reaffirmed all elements of the decision taken at the 2008 Bucharest Summit and in subsequent decisions that “Georgia will become a member of NATO.” At the 2009 Strasbourg-Kehl Summit, NATO declared that the Annual National Programme would help Georgia in advancing its reforms. The Chicago Summit declaration notes that the “NATO-Georgia Commission and Georgia’s Annual National Programme (ANP) have a central role in supervising the process set in hand at the Bucharest Summit.”
In the Chicago Summit declaration, NATO underscored Georgia’s headway along the path to NATO integration: “We welcome Georgia’s progress since the Bucharest Summit to meet its Euro-Atlantic aspirations through its reforms, implementation of its Annual National Programme, and active political engagement with the Alliance in the NATO-Georgia Commission. In that context, we have agreed to enhance Georgia’s connectivity with the Alliance, including by further strengthening our political dialogue, practical cooperation, and interoperability with Georgia.”
At the same time it welcomed and supported Georgia’s reforms, NATO also stressed “the importance of conducting free, fair, and inclusive elections in 2012 and 2013.”
NATO extended its appreciation to Georgia for the country’s substantial contribution as the second largest non-NATO contributing nation to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The declaration reiterated NATO’s continued support of Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and welcomed Georgia’s full compliance with the European Union-mediated cease-fire agreement of 2008 and other unilateral measures to build confidence.
NATO further welcomed Georgia’s unilateral commitment not to use force and called on Russia to take reciprocal steps and to honor the terms of the 2008 cease-fire agreement. The Alliance noted that it has achieved some progress in its relationship with Russia even though disagreements on a number of issues remain. NATO expressed concern about the build-up of Russia’s military presence on Georgia’s territory and called on Russia to reverse its recognition of the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions of Georgia as independent states and to ensure free access for humanitarian assistance and international observers there.
The next NATO summit will probably be held in 2014. Whether it will be an enlargement summit is hard to tell. It is equally hard to predict whether enlargement, if any, would extend at that time to Georgia. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is nevertheless upbeat about the next NATO summit: “Hillary Clinton and very many other speakers said that the next summit will be an enlargement summit. It will, probably, be held in 2014 and I think that Georgia has a serious chance. I have never been so confident. Our progress will continue by all means and we will be in a better shape for the next summit. And then it will be very difficult to explain why Georgia is not admitted to NATO.”
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 102, published 28 May 2012.