Back in April we posted about the visit of NATO’s Military Commission to Tbilisi, where the Alliance’s plans about a reinforced presence in the Black Sea region were discussed. Those talks came on the heels of a NATO Defense Ministerial in February that had decided to reinforce air patrols over the Black Sea, an increase in joint exercises and port visits of the Standing Naval Forces as well as a build-up of existing multi-national land forces deployed in Romania.
In the context of the MC’s Tbilisi visit, General Vladimer Chachibaia, chief of the Georgian Joint Staff, suggested that NATO could set up a base near Poti on the Black Sea coast. Poti is an important commercial port city for Georgia and also the headquarters of the country’s Coast Guard Service.
While General Chachibaia did not further explain the rationale of this proposal, military analyst Irakli Aladashvili surmised that such a base could serve to deploy anti-air and anti-ship rocket systems and thus to set up a so-called Anti-Access/ Area-Denial (A2/AD) zone over the eastern part of the Black Sea.
The session of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly held on 26-29 May in Tbilisi proved that Aladashvili had been right on the money. However, NATO members were skeptical about the added value to the Alliance of stationing troops in Georgia. As suggested in our April post, while such a proposal does demonstrate Georgia’s commitment to contribute to peace and stability in the Black Sea region, the basing of NATO forces at the country’s Black Sea littoral would foremost serve Tbilisi’s security needs and would certainly further fan Russian anger at what it perceives to be NATO’s encroachment on its sphere of influence.
In the event, Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller used the spring session of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO PA) held in Tbilisi on May 26-29 to deliver a polite but clear rejection of the Poti basing offer. On May 29, she told the press that the Alliance planned on “protecting Black Sea security” through the multi-national land forces brigade stationed in Romania, and that no non-member state troop contingents were going to be used for this purpose. However, Gottemoeller added, NATO highly appreciated Georgia’s contribution to peace and stability in the Black Sea in terms of providing “information on the region.”
It is safe to assume that sharing information is a form of cooperation that’s leaving Georgian political leaders cold. Nevertheless, Georgian media did not report extensively on the short shrift given to Tbilisi’s proposal. Coverage was mainly focused on the importance of holding the NATO PA session in Tbilisi, the first time the Assembly met in a non-member state since 2002, as well as on the support expressed with regard to Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration.
Declaration 435, which was voted on by the NATO PA session on the same day as Ms Gottemoeller spoke to the press, repeated the Alliance’s commitment to an “Open Door policy” and to the decision taken at the NATO Bucharest summit in 2008 that Georgia would one day become a member state. It had kind words for Tbilisi’s efforts on implementing the Annual National Programs and for its participation in the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan as well as the NATO Response Force. NATO parliamentarians also reaffirmed their support to Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, condemning Russia’s “de-facto annexation” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and called on member states to render assistance to Georgia’s NATO integration efforts.
In turn, Georgian political leaders speaking to the Assembly session repeated their Euro-Atlantic aspirations while at the same time expressing so-called “strategic patience.” In his speech, President Giorgi Margvelashvili said Georgia was “patiently waiting for the day when the Alliance decides to become stronger by Georgia’s membership.”
Other officials also did their best to stress the positive elements they had spotted. State Minister for Euro-Atlantic Integration Viktor Dolidze believed he had discerned an “optimistic mood” toward his country in the Alliance. Irakli Sesiashvili, Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Defense and Security, said as long as Georgia would continue to reform and develop, it would get step by step closer to its main goal: NATO membership.
Analysts and experts, for their part, pointed out that the exact path of getting to this objective remained unclear. Kakha Gogolashvili of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (GFSIS) told the website Caucasian Knot that it was impossible to conclude from Declaration 435 whether Georgia would receive a much-coveted Membership Action Plan (MAP) – the road map to Alliance integration. First, such a decision does not depend on the NATO PA. Second, in the face of Russia’s dogged opposition to any further expansion of the Alliance, member states could hardly reach a consensus to satisfy Georgia’s aspirations.
Moreover, Vakhtang Maisaia, expert on politico-military affairs, noted that regardless of Russia’s position on the matter, Georgia still had work to do on harmonizing its legislative base with that of NATO states before it could qualify for membership. This is a fact that is often overlooked in analyses that purport a decision on Georgia’s integration into NATO is held up solely by Moscow’s hostile stance.
In fact, while the country has received praise for the level of interoperability reached between its armed forces and those of Alliance members, defense sector governance is not yet on a par with NATO standards. Weak parliamentary control over security sector institutions has been a longstanding concern, and it seems that planned constitutional changes leading to the abolition of the National Security Council under the President may further weaken democratic oversight mechanisms.
Without doubt the NATO PA session held in Tbilisi was a public relations win for the government and serves to keep Georgia on the agenda of NATO member states. Political leaders were surely realistic enough not to expect any positive surprises in terms of substantively enhancing the country’s membership bid in the Alliance.
What may be more significant, and also more concerning, for Georgia is the unequivocal rejection of its Black Sea basing offer. Publicly making such a proposal, which did not have high prospects for being accepted from the start, was an ill-advised step: It prompted yet another clear signal that there is no appetite within the Alliance to antagonize Russia further, least of all by placing troops in Georgia and thereby raising NATO’s stakes the country’s security situation.
Featured image: NATO-Georgia Commission Foreign Ministers meeting held on the sidelines of the NATO Summit in Warsaw, Poland, July 2016. Image: U.S. Department of State via Wikimedia Commons
Update (9 August 2017): This post has been slightly edited for style.