Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili faces a serious challenge. He has to run a country that is partly occupied by a neighboring state whilst simultaneously striving to join the strongest ever military-political alliance in order to resolve Georgia's national security problem once and for all. Ivanishvili asserts that he is committed to the Western course, but also wants to improve relations with Russia. The dilemma, however, is that declaring the latter goal risks prejudicing the former. If Georgia's politically inexperienced prime minister is sincerely committed to the NATO course, he must also maintain continuity in relations with Russia. Otherwise, the temptation to sort out relations with the Kremlin risks causing Georgia's detachment from the West.
On 26 April, in an interview given to the Rustavi 2 TV channel, Bidzina Ivanishvili listed those steps which his government has undertaken to mend ties with Russia: the toning down of rhetoric; a fundamental revision of Georgia's "defense doctrine", as he put it, downgrading the Russian threat; Georgia's participation in the forthcoming Sochi Winter Olympics; and an investigation into the Lapanquri special operation with the aim of discovering any ties between North Caucasian insurgents and the former Georgian government. Shortly after that interview it came to light that the Strategic Defense Review has not been significantly revised and, as asserted by the Defense Minister Irakli Alasania and the National Security Council Secretary Giga Bokeria, the threat emanating from Russia is still adequately reflected in both that and other strategic documents. As regards the ties of the former government to the Lapanquri special operation and North Caucasian and "other insurgents," within two days of giving the interview, Ivanishvili explained that he had only "expressed doubts" and never insisted that the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili cooperated with terrorists. Thus, it turned out that of those four steps named by Ivanishvili, one had never been taken whilst another was articulated in a misleading and confusing way. The only thing left to do is to ask if the remaining two steps – softened rhetoric and participation in Sochi Olympic Games – are sufficient to improve relations with Russia?
Observant people will have noticed that in responding to the persistent questioning of the Rustavi 2 journalist regarding what steps the government has taken to improve relations with Moscow, the prime minister neglected to mention two fundamental issues: Georgia's integration into NATO and the reinstatement of Georgia's sovereignty over the occupied territories. Yet another surprising aspect is why, when discussing ways of settling relations with Russia, Ivanishvili did not speak about the amendment to the Law on Occupied Territories. It is abundantly clear that turning our back on NATO and stopping our demands for the de-occupation of Georgia's territories are the two key conditions that Russia is putting forward in exchange for "sorting out" relations with Georgia. To everyone's surprise, Ivanishvili also did not say anything about either the appointment of his special representative for relations with Russia or the launch of a bilateral dialogue. The puzzle is whether Ivanishvili simply forgot those issues or deliberately avoided them.
To shed some light on that topic it is useful to recall several key postulates of the previous government. A significant element of Saakashvili's government's dialogue with its Western partners was the assertion that the settlement of relations with Russia must be preceded by Georgia's integration into NATO or, at least, the award of a Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Georgia. This logic is based on two arguments. 1. The historical argument: the experience of East European Countries has shown that integration into NATO has a positive effect on the improvement of Russia's relations with its former satellites. Even though Moscow spared no efforts to block each wave of NATO enlargement, after the enlargement took place, Russia had no other option but to put up with the new reality and engage in more or less constructive cooperation with the alliance. 2. The security argument: security in Europe, including, the security of the Russian Federation has become stronger alongside NATO's eastward enlargement. Involvement of new countries into the collective security system contributes not only to strengthening traditional military and political security and stability, but also deepening economic and trade ties and enhancing the universal principles of human rights. As regards Russia, the existence of NATO-member states in its neighborhood, in place of pseudo-buffer zones, significantly improves the security situation along Russia's borders. Politically stable and democratic states in Russia's neighborhood have a beneficial impact on the long-term development of Russia. No less important is that the enlargement of the alliance reins in the hegemonic aspirations of Russian revanchist forces and hence reduces the threat of regional conflicts. Repeating the words of Giga Bokeria, Russia sees NATO as a threat not because it is afraid that the alliance will attack, but because in its expansion Russia loses its own prospect of enlargement. Taking this into account, the remedy for containing Russia and avoiding expansionistic wars is continuing the process of NATO's eastward expansion.
When talking about Russia, the positive steps the previous government unilaterally took to ease the tension between Tbilisi and Moscow are also of significance: the opening of the Larsi border checkpoint; the pledge not to use force for the reinstatement of control on occupied territories; the abolition of the visa regime for citizens of Russia and, consequently, the increase in Russian visitors to Georgia; and the constructive stance taken towards Russia gaining World Trade Organization membership. These all resonated positively and were appreciated by Georgia's European and American partners.
However, in his 26 April interview on Rustavi 2, Prime Minister Ivanishvili did not recall these steps. This indicates that, on the one hand, he is distancing himself from even the positive initiatives of the previous government and, on the other hand, is attempting to start relations with Russia from a "clean slate." This does not fit into the strategic interests of Georgia at all. Distancing himself from the positive steps of the former government significantly weakens Ivanishvili's position and whets Russia's appetite for new demands.
The previous government pursued a well-thought out, multi-dimensional foreign policy strategy that is reflected in the national security concept and other important documents. This was to: 1. Strive towards NATO and the European Union. 2. Gain international recognition of the Russian occupation and, consequently, the policy of non-recognition of the occupied territories as independent states. 3. Taking unilateral positive steps in relations with Russia in such a way as to not prejudice the two previous issues on the agenda.
The strategy of Ivanishvili's government is amorphous and fragmented. Even though a Resolution on the Basic Directions of Georgia's Foreign Policy was unanimously adopted by parliament in March, this largely stresses the continuation of the foreign policy vector only on a declarative level and one can see serious deviations in the practical implementation of foreign policy, especially in terms of the order of priorities. Before the parliamentary elections of October 2012, several representatives of current ruling force maintained that the improvement of relations with Russia must precede integration into NATO – thereby rendering their allegiance to NATO integration fictitious and insincere from the very outset. Later on, those leaders of the Georgian Dream coalition who portray themselves as supporters of NATO, started asserting that the improvement of relations with Russia and the integration into NATO should happen in parallel.
Of course, in reaching the goal, what is most important is not the excessive analysis of what step should come first, but those practical steps which have been taken, or are intended to be taken, in those two directions. However, one thing is clear: we must not confuse positive steps with unilateral concessions for settling relations with Russia (and the amendment to the Law on Occupation that has been submitted to parliament is a concession, not a constructive step), whilst our aspirations towards NATO must be supported with practical steps and achievements, not just declarations.
The 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest was a breakthrough on Georgia's path towards NATO integration, when the alliance declared, for the first time ever, that Georgia will eventually become a NATO member. In documents adopted during subsequent summits this wording was not only repeated but was given practical meaning, first by launching an intensive dialogue with Georgia and then by establishing two very important mechanisms: the annual national program and the NATO-Georgia commission. Representatives and leaders of the North Atlantic Council and other important NATO bodies paid visits to Georgia. In parallel, Georgia was gradually decoupled from Ukraine, thereby further strengthening the chance of Georgia's integration. Furthermore, Georgia acquired the status of an aspirant country and was grouped with those Western Balkan countries (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro) which have already received MAPs and for who NATO membership is only a matter of time. In addition, at the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago the then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a statement that the next summit must be an enlargement summit.
The progress of Georgia on the path towards NATO is the result of diligent work from all branches of the previous government. Each and every achievement was a result of tireless efforts, a willingness to fight, to persevere and to influence our Western partners from political decision makers as well as the diplomatic corps and wider bureaucracy. Reaching the finish line requires a similar will and as much labor from the current executive and legislative powers. The peaceful transfer of power via the democratic election, Georgia's increased contribution to NATO's ISAF operation and the commitment to the foreign political course on a declarative level create significant prerequisites for a new breakthrough at the next NATO summit in 2014, which must translate into an invitation for Georgia to join the alliance or, at least, a MAP being granted.
A statement made by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili on 30 April that "we must at least receive the MAP" in 2014, provides grounds for cautious optimism. To achieve this aim, the government, in addition to working diligently with its Western partners – showing them their endurance and persuading them – needs to take several other practical steps. The current Georgian government must renew its offer to let its NATO partners use Georgia's infrastructure in the process of withdrawing forces from Afghanistan. Another important thing is to properly prepare an annual action plan within the framework of cooperation with NATO; to conduct high level visits of the North Atlantic Council and NATO Military Committee to Georgia, and to implement the decision on enhancing defense cooperation that was achieved during the Obama-Saakashvili meeting in Washington in 2012. A visit of the prime minister to Washington will definitely be conducive to the NATO integration process, as would a joint address to the North Atlantic Alliance by Georgia's president and prime minister.
Taking into account the current political situation of Georgia, it is of the utmost importance to maintain consistency and to send clear and unambiguous messages to the West in order to avoid creating an impression among our NATO partners that, because of the Georgian prime minister's desire to settle relations with Russia, the aim of joining the alliance has lost its priority and has been put on the back burner. It is necessary to constantly show that Georgia's NATO membership will only contribute to both defusing tensions between Georgia and Russia and establishing peace in the region. As regards relations with Moscow, steps taken to build upon the measures undertaken by the previous government after the war in August 2008, perceived positively by the Western partners and not regarded as unilateral concessions will be welcome.