What's Georgia Going To Get At The NATO Summit?

By Joshua Kucera

Georgia's prospects in NATO, after being more or less left for dead in the wake of the 2008 war with Russia, have lately appeared to be improving. NATO has recently changed its rhetoric on Georgia, for the first time calling it an "aspirant" along with several Balkan countries. And U.S. officials have said Georgia is making "significant progress" that should be recognized at the next NATO summit, in Chicago in May.

So what does this mean? Does Georgia have a shot at NATO membership after all? As a story on EurasiaNet's main page today explains, not really: President Obama, after his meeting with his Georgian counterpart Mikheil Saakashvili, used the word "ultimately" to describe Georgia's entrance into NATO, which suggests he doesn't see it happening any time soon. And even if the White House were to again back Georgian NATO membership as strongly as the Bush administration did pre-August 2008, there would still be the matter of the big Western European countries who oppose Georgia's membership. So what to do?

The defense official quoted in the EurasiaNet piece had more thoughts on this (though there wasn't room in that piece). A Membership Action Plan, the holy grail for Georgia, is not a possibility. That subject won't even be discussed at the summit: remember, this will be in May of an election year. "It's about U.S. internal politics, so this summit needs to look good. We don't need a food fight like in '08, between us and the Germans, or the pro-Georgia camp vs. the camp that's not too keen on Georgia. We don't need that. So the whole Georgia issue isn't going to be raised," the official said.

Nevertheless, relations have been improving between Washington and Tbilisi, and the U.S. is grateful for Georgia's constructive approach to Russia's World Trade Organization bid. "So how can we illustrate to the Georgians that they're being constructive on this and give them some benefits, without at the same time getting our reset relations with Russia all screwed up," the official asked. "What language do you want to use that helps the Georgians out, keeps their aspirations alive, keeps the language of Bucharest still relevant. So, this is what they [the administration] are trying to wrestle with."

Probably there will be some symbolic, but not very substantial, move: "How do you craft some language that gives them an elevated status without making any fundamental changes? Do you take the Georgia-NATO Commission and add something to it and add to it, do something that hasn't been done to show that there's progress? Do you modify the Annual National Program and make it do something that hasn't been done already? That's what they're trying to accomplish."

A State Department official I talked to on this subject agreed with that, but suggested the focus is not on placating Russia but on not offending NATO allies. A token improvement to show progress is "low cost in terms of our alliance relations," the official said. Russia isn't especially concerned about the moves that have been made, the official said.

Nevertheless, this sort of thing is red meat for the Russian political base. And Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, speaking to Russian journalists has weighed in on even this slight warming of ties between Tbilisi and Washington, loudly warning Saakashvili against any further incursions into Abkhazia or South Ossetia:

“[Military bases] are now in such a condition that they are capable to protect these two small states and correspondingly the Russian interests too in the most powerful way. The weaponry, which is in place [on those bases], is enough to inflict incommensurable damage to any invader and they understand it, even insane Saakashvili understands it,” Medvedev said at a meeting with supporters in his Gorki residence outside Moscow.

Medvedev made the remarks after one of the participants of the meeting told him with regret, that although after the August, 2008 war Russia managed to secure international “informal arms embargo” against Georgia, situation was now changing with Georgia “restarting to buy arms from around the world”; this participant of the meeting also said that there were speculations about a trade-off – Russia turning a blind eye on Georgia’s rearmament and in exchange securing Tbilisi’s go-ahead for Russia’s WTO accession.

Makes you wonder, though, what's being said behind closed doors.