Guest article by Alexandros Petersen
In an interview published 20th April, Simon Lunn, secretary-general of NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly said that Georgia’s membership in NATO is ‘a question of when rather than if.’ This prediction follows supportive statements from German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, British prime minister, Tony Blair, French presidential candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, and NATO secretary-general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. All that remains is a formal invitation from NATO through a Membership Action Plan.
Whether one thinks that NATO and European Union membership should or should not be linked, Georgia’s accession to the trans-Atlantic alliance raises the question of the country’s engagement with the Union beyond the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). While the ENP was seen by many as a line in the sand marking the Union’s limits, Georgia’s clear Euro-Atlantic aspirations present a case for reconsideration. And, while Moldova seems to have gravitated away from a frustrating Brussels, one cannot fault Georgia for lack of enthusiasm.
Since Georgia’s 2003 ‘Rose Revolution’, president Mikhail Saakashvili’s government has attempted to thrust the country in a European direction. Laying out his intentions in his inaugural speech, Saakashvili proclaimed: ‘We will steer a steady course towards European integration…[the European] flag is Georgia’s flag as well, as far as it embodies our civilisation, our culture, the essence of our history and perspective, and our vision for the future of Georgia.’ Indeed, European flags festoon every government building and landmark in Tbilisi. In 2004, a ministerial post was created for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration and Saakashvili and the prime minister, Zurab Noghaideli, frequently speak about European integration as Georgia’s ‘number one foreign policy priority.’
Georgia’s European vision has manifested itself in more than rhetoric. Far-reaching reforms have been implemented in almost all areas of governance, leading the World Bank to identify Georgia as the fastest-reforming country in the world in 2006. Saakashvili’s taste for rapid reform is powerful, and with his National Movement party’s strong parliamentary majority and significant public support, he has been able to implement sweeping and radical changes. Public opinion polls consistently show eighty percent of the population in favour of joining Euro-Atlantic intuitions.
The ENP was extended to the South Caucasus in 2004, and a European Union-Georgia Action Plan was agreed in November 2006. Largely due to feverish efforts by Georgian officials, the Action Plan included most of the elements for which Saakashvili’s government had hoped. Now, Germany’s European presidency is paying more attention to Georgian concerns, and the European high representative, Javier Solana, in February floated the prospect of European peacekeepers being sent to Georgia’s frozen conflicts.
De-facto independent Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where Moscow-backed separatists have set up unrecognised governments, present Georgia’s main obstacle to Euro-Atlantic integration. The Georgian position has long been that solutions can only be reached if biased Russian peacekeepers are withdrawn and replaced by European Union contingents. But, even while Tbilisi waits for Brussels to make up its mind, Saakashvili’s government is developing an opportunity for resolution in the less intractable of the conflicts: South Ossetia.
Tbilisi has put its support behind the former separatist Dmitri Sanakoyev, who has set up an ‘alternative administration’ in the region that favours unity with Georgia. On 5th April, the Georgian parliament passed a draft law setting the stage for South Ossetia’s autonomy within Georgia, and two weeks later, Saakashvili announced that alternative authorities will be able to appoint deputy ministers in the Georgian central government. Meanwhile, Tbilisi has mounted a vigorous infrastructure development and economic aid campaign for the conflict zone.
The European Union should assist in this creative and constructive approach to conflict resolution. Solana should meet with Saakashvili and Sanakoyev to support the project and determine their needs in negotiating with the separatists and Moscow. Most importantly, Solana should appoint a high-profile European Union special envoy to South Ossetia. The mediating assistance of such an envoy can serve to facilitate conflict settlement along the lines of Saakashvili’s plan, and lay the groundwork for a European Union peacekeeping mission, should violence flare. Overall, European assistance in producing an endgame to the conflict will help bring into the international fold a de-facto failed state, a haven for trafficking and illegal activity that affects all of Europe.
Will Georgia be the first country to be allowed NATO entry, but denied accession to the European Union? Not if the current momentum continues. It seems that as long as Saakashvili has his way, reforms will continue apace. New converts to Georgia’s position are made every time Georgian officials make their case abroad. If peaceful and viable solutions can be found to Georgia’s frozen conflicts, it will become very difficult to obstruct Tbilisi’s path to Brussels.
Alexandros Petersen is a senior researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.