In the Caucasus, Georgia is the country that is most strongly aligned with Europe. But now, a planned NATO exercise is creating fresh tensions with neighboring Russia. Volker Witting reports.
NATO's Joint Training And Evaluation Center in Georgia is a plain container building on a training site outside Tbilisi. Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli sits in her gray-tiled briefing room, surrounded by officers in faded fatigues. The soldiers speak German; the young minister English. The officers received their training in Germany. When asked what the most important lesson they learned there was, they answer unanimously: "inner leadership." It's a clear reflection of the value the German army places on mature, democratically-minded "civilians in uniform." And that's the principle with which they aim to take responsibility for their country and - a dream shared by Khidasheli - finally be granted NATO membership.
Russia - troublesome and unloved neighbor
The Joint Training And Evaluation Center is currently where the Georgian officers are training together with soldiers from Norway, Denmark, Latvia, Sweden, Finland, and Germany. From Wednesday, they'll be joined by British and American colleagues for a large-scale exercise. In total, some 1,300 soldiers are taking part in operation "Noble Partner 2016." Neighboring Russia has already described the exercise in the former Soviet republic as a provocation. It considers Georgia's pursuit of closer ties with the Western alliance to be an affront.
For her part, Minister Khidasheli describes Russian foreign policy as little more than "daily aggression." She mentions the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are officially part of Georgia but which have basically been annexed, like Crimea later, by Russian troops after the brief Georgian war of 2008. "Hostages" are taken there on a "daily" basis, Khidasheli says. It seems exaggerated, but Abkhazia and South Ossetia contribute to the image of Russia as a troublesome neighbor. "We don't want to belong to Russia anymore, we just want to live with them in peace," she says.
Waiting at the back of the line
Georgia has long been contributing troops to foreign missions in places such as Afghanistan or Mali. But the country has yet to be offered a Membership Action Plan (MAP), the preliminary step needed before full NATO membership.
"Seventy-five percent of our citizens are in favor of NATO membership, and 80 percent are pro-EU," said Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili. He lists all the achievements his country of 3.7 million people has accomplished with a view toward the EU: Corruption is a thing of the past, press freedom is guaranteed, the economy is growing, and human rights are respected.
No more than an EU association agreement
He's right, which is why the EU has promised to relax visa regulations for Georgia beginning this summer. "For us, that is a confirmation that our country has earned," he said.
But like many others in his country, Kvirikashvili hopes Georgia will one day be a proper EU member. Even before he took office, the EU flag was flying alongside the Georgian flag, as if membership were already a done deal. However, the country has merely an association agreement with the EU, granted in 2014.
Organized crime still a problem
One issue that continues to be a problem for Georgia with regard to its westward ambitions is organized crime. According to Germany's Criminal Police Office (BKA), crime gangs from Georgia are increasingly responsible for burglaries in German homes.
In 2014, the BKA addressed the problem of Georgians being recruited in Georgia to join gangs of thieves in Germany. It was a long time before the Georgian government began to take the problem seriously.
Patience the only option
On April 15, the German and Georgian interior ministers jointly declared that 21 Georgians had been deported from Germany. "Among them are Georgian citizens who have been abusing the lengthy asylum application process to engage in illegal activities," a press release read. Now, an action plan has been agreed to finally put an end to such organized crime.
Georgia needs to be patient with regard to its goal of closer ties with the West. Prime Minister Kvirikashvili appears to be taking a long-term approach, not that he has any other option. His country has changed for the better while it's been waiting, he says, adding: "We intend to remain patient."