NATO in South Caucasus: Pragmatism or Farewell to Illusions?

By Sergey Minasyan

A few years ago the subject of NATO’s role in regional policy in South Caucasus was one of the key within estimations and declarations of many politician, experts and reporters involved into the region. The August Russian-Georgian war of 2008, world financial-economic crisis, “Arab spring” and return of “classic” geopolitics into the region have changed the priority of perception of the North Atlantic Alliance in South Caucasus. NATO is already perceived by South Caucasian countries not the way as it was in the first part of 2000. In its turn Brussels also already not that ambitiously targets at South Caucasus.

Let’s try to review how fundamental and stable these trends are. Are they simply more realistic evaluation of the established political situation, the result of pragmatization and optimization of own forces and opportunities, or they symbolize a farewell of Brussels officials and South Caucasus elites to the stereotype image of NATO in South Caucasus?
Dynamics of Changing Perception

It’s worth to note, that high expectations about the abilities of NATO in South Caucasus, smoothly transforming into unjustified illusions, among some regional elites (especially in Georgia, but also partially in Azerbaijan) have always significantly differed from the readiness of the Alliance itself to institutional involvement into the region. By this in Tbilisi and Baku until August of 2008 they oddly tried not to notice the factor of Russia, which significantly restrained the activity of the Alliance in the region, and which Brussels itself have always had to consider, by this not that due to the influence of Moscow in Caucasus. More important was the consideration of mutual involvement into cooperation at higher level of commonness of priorities between Moscow and Brussels with a wide range of issues from Afghanistan till missile defense systems, at the background of which South Caucasus was a significant, but not a decisive subject.

The most evidently it was proved in course of Bucharest Summit of NATO in spring 2008, when following the opinion of many commentators, Georgia for all these years, was, probably, closest to the accomplishment of cherished dream to get the Plan of Actions on NATO membership (Membership Actions Plan - MAP). And after the August War 2008, when neither NATO nor the USA provided aid to the Georgians combating against Russian army in South Ossetia, perception of the North Atlantic Alliance and possible joining to it of the states of the regions changed. Some lost illusions so fast, that, for example, Azerbaijan very soon not only stopped talking about its wish to join NATO but even acceded the Non-Aligned Movement.


> Caucasus Map
Naturally, depending from the frequency of NATO summits, visits of NATO officials and results of the accomplishment of informational and propaganda projects by the NATO Public Diplomacy Department from time to time the interest to the regional activity of the block in local Mass Media rises again. But already we may state that pragmatism, by this more sensible from Brussels, covered the idealistic illusions of the evaluations of the place and the role of the Alliance in South Caucasus. It’s not an accident that the activity of the Alliance is observed absolutely not in those spheres, where the countries of the region would like to see greater military-political involvement of the block (for example, in the issue of the prospects of their membership in the Alliance or active participation of NATO within regulation of frozen ethnic-political conflicts in South Caucasus). And vice versa, where NATO itself needs the services of the states of the region (transit of cargos through Georgia and Azerbaijan for NATO grouping in Afghanistan, attraction of military troops from South Caucasus into joint peacekeeping actions in this country, Iranian-Caspian direction), the block expresses quite greater readiness to cooperate with South Caucasian states, distancing from sensitive issues of membership prospects of involvement into regional conflicts with formal declarations.

The given changing dynamics was proved by the results of Chicago NATO Summit in May 2012. According to its results Georgia wasn’t once again provided with the NATO Membership Plan (opening the opportunity to start bureaucratic procedure of acceptance of the applicant country into this military-political block). The formal documents adopted in course of this summit only slightly touched upon the problems of South Caucasus, proving already pretty noticeable and stable dynamics of priority shift of this region within evaluations and perceptions of the North Atlantic Alliance.

For better understanding of the role and prospects of NATO in the region let’s try generally to analyze the current stage of interrelations of the Alliance with all three internationally recognized countries of South Caucasus, with which the organization for almost two decades develops cooperation.
The Current Level of NATO’s Relations with the States of South Caucasus

There is a steady delusion that Georgia significantly outstrips the rest countries of South Caucasus by the level of its cooperation with NATO. In reality institutionally and in accordance with the standards of the North Atlantic Alliance itself, Georgia, in the best case, only for half a step outstrips Armenia and Azerbaijan. Another thing is that at the level of public bilateral rhetoric, fixed even in official documents of the Alliance, Georgia is really observed as a possible candidate into the member of this military-political block.

Naturally, rhetoric at some stage can possibly turn into political reality (and there is nothing to say about the possibilities of the current Georgian leadership to use political PR as the most significant political lever and tool).

However till obtaining of the NATO Membership Plan (MAP) this country still remains to be in the same weight group with the neighbors in the region.
Although the fact of possible in prospect granting to Georgia of the NATO MAP is not yet a 100% warranty of sooner acceptance of this country into the Alliance. As precisely notices the famous expert on regional policy Sergey Markedonov, for example, MAP was granted already many years ago also to Macedonia, but it hasn’t still become NATO’s member.

As a result, if earlier NATO representatives declared about the need of route transformation in the sphere of security of Georgia for further progress within the talks with Brussels, then now the formal reason to postpone the decision on this country is called the need to hold correspondingly of Parliamentary and Presidential elections appointed at 2012 and 2013. However, as it seems, the issue is not really about the level of democratic institutions development or the quality of elections conduction, which is pretty arguable for the current Georgia. None of NATO officials (although, as Georgian ones) up till now can’t clearly answer the most significant question, whether it is at all possible to adopt into the Alliance’s members the country which doesn’t control a part of its territory, where there are military bases of nuclear super-power, in its turn having recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. Yet no one has a clear answer on the question, and how at all the membership of Georgia in NATO is possible after the decision of Russia of August 26th, 2008 to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia – either Brussels or Tbilisi. The declarations of Georgian officials, that Georgia sooner or later shall join NATO together with these lands after their deoccupation, sounds at the moment, mildly speaking, a bit rhetoric.

As for the interrelations of NATO with Azerbaijan, then it’s worth mentioning that after entry of this country into the Non-Aligned Movement all the talks about the possibility of its membership in the Alliance, as the Head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Elmar Mamedyarov noted in one of the interviews, have become too hypothetic, i.e. in near future in fact unreal.

On the other hand, as minimum till 2014 the main format of cooperation of this country with the North Atlantic Alliance shall be the provision of transit to Afghanistan of NATO cargos with the use of territories and infrastructure of Azerbaijan (according to some estimations, almost one third of all cargo scopes supplied to NATO contingency in Afghanistan). Together with this, it seems, in Baku they lost the illusions regarding involvement of NATO into Karabakh regulation. More likely, - Baku already with some irritation perceives the comments of Brussels on Karabakh conflict, as they mainly relate the concern on the initiated and instrumentalized by Azerbaijan tension along the line of contact of the parties in conflict.

However, Azerbaijan has a pretty important political and lobbying resource within interrelations with NATO, which is Turkey that plays not the last part in the structures of the Alliance. In fact, directly in military and military-technical spheres the interrelations of Azerbaijan with NATO have already had for a long time more like bilateral format, where Turkey plays a special role within development of Azerbaijani army and attempts at least generally to transform it to NATO standards. However, nevertheless, even Turkish factor (as well as oil-gas and geopolitical significance of Azerbaijan deliberately exaggerated by official Baku) doesn’t assure critical preferences of the advantage in this country in pretty balanced long-term strategic priorities of NATO in South Caucasus. In any case, this is quite evident in a conscious politics of balancing of the Alliance in interrelations with Azerbaijan, as well as with Armenia.

Getting to the issue Armenia-NATO we’ll note that Armenia in fact cedes to Azerbaijan within interrelations with NATO, or may even exceed. This is called first of all with political considerations. Azerbaijan on many parameters can’t  compare with Armenia in perception of NATO officials and evaluations of the governments of European members of the Alliance (irreversibility of democratic development, plurality of internal political field and real functioning of electoral institution, the level of bilateral relations with the number of the key NATO states, in particular with the USA and France, special interrelations with Greece). Considering military aspects Armenia absolutely also doesn’t lose to Azerbaijan on the level of cooperation with the Alliance, as well as the results achieved (for example, the state of military-civilian relations and control over military sphere, the second after Georgia among post-soviet countries number of peacekeepers as a part of NATO contingency in Afghanistan, etc). Naturally, Turkish factor inside NATO plays its negative role, but it compensates with the above mentioned advantages, which Armenia possesses in comparison with Azerbaijan.

Naturally, a serious reasonable question arises, what about the membership of Armenia in the CSTO, and whether it is an insurmountable obstacle on the way of cooperation of Yerevan with Brussels?  However, it is suggested that till the moment NATO itself institutionally yet is not present in South Caucasus (and shall not present for a long time, till then Georgian membership is questioned), the CSTO shall not be a restraining factor for Armenia within development of its interrelations with the Alliance. Moreover, in definite cases the membership of Armenia in the CSTO and close Armenian-Russian military and political cooperation can even be of definite practical value in regional priorities of the North Atlantic Alliance, from time to time facing the problem of finding new points of contact with Russia on many security issues within post-Soviet area.

Thus, we can state, that at the moment a pretty serious reevaluation of the role and place of NATO happens in the regional policy and security in South Caucasus. And the main trend inside NATO structures, as well as in regional actors is pragmatization of perception of the North Atlantic Alliance in South Caucasus, with release of all the parties involved from  extra illusions, unreasoned fears and unaccomplished hopes.

A peculiar clear illustration of this trend can be for example the results of presented in 2012 in Tbilisi by American National Democratic Institute (NDI) a sociologic study, performed under the financing of the Swedish International Development agency (SIDA) and held by Georgian Department of the Caucasus Research Resources Center (CRRC).About 30% of responded citizens of Georgia supported the suggestion of one of the leaders of the oppositional party “Georgian Dream” to refuse of the membership of the country in NATO in exchange for the return of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. By this only 28% of respondents considered this suggestion as unacceptable, and 40% haven’t yet decided with the answer. As it seems, such vivid “instrumentalization” and “pragmatization” of NATO’s role within internal social perceptions is the most motivated in the issue of the membership in the Alliance of the country of South Caucasus speaks for itself.
Sergey Minasyan – PhD, the Head of the Department for Political Studies of Caucasus Institute (Yerevan, Armenia)

Translated by EuroDialogueXXI from