Officials in the former Soviet state are eager for membership the trans-Atlantic alliance, but they'll have to continue to wait patiently nonetheless. NATO leadership is visiting Tbilisi - to Moscow's displeasure.
Once the acclaimed Don Carlos at international operas, the performer Paata Burchuladze is poised to make his debut on Georgia's political stage when parliamentary elections are held next month. The popular bass and self-described conservative is hoping to unseat Georgian Dream, the governing social democrats. Despite a high-profile visit by NATO ambassadors to Tbilisi, the economy is the main campaign theme. Georgia's large parties, left and right, all seek greater integration with the United States and European Union, including membership in NATO and the EU. For the former, the country has waited eight years.
At a 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, officials decided to open the alliance to new members, and that Georgia - a former Soviet state of 4 million people on the Black Sea - would be allowed to join upon fulfilling certain conditions. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was present at the NATO meeting, criticized the move and is categorically opposed to any expansion of the military alliance.
Naturally, Russia has no official voice in NATO affairs; however, Putin has created facts on the ground. He instigated a brief military confrontation in August, defending pro-Russia separatists in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and pushing Georgia's army back, to unofficially occupy 20 percent of the nation's territory. This frozen conflict has created an obstacle to NATO membership, which is prohibited for countries involved in ongoing disputes with their neighbors. It has also prevented NATO from engaging in further dialogue with Ukraine, alliance diplomats say in Brussels.
Georgia's NATO membership is "currently not in sharp focus," German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schäfer said in April, though he allowed that there could be room for cooperation: "We'll have to wait and see what comes from that."
'Joint NATO strategy'
Russia aside, Georgia is in a good "technical" position to join. Its military forces are in shape, and the domestic political situation is stable, NATO diplomats say. It also enjoys cozy relations with NATO's largest member: the United States.
Visitors arriving to Tbilisi from the airport are greeted by a large sign featuring former US President George W Bush - for whom the airport is also named. And US Secretary of State John Kerry visited the country in July, calling on Russia to end its occupation of Georgian territory. However, said David J. Kramer of the conservative US think tank McCain Institute, NATO should not try to test Georgia's patience. Disappointment is on the rise in the region. "Ukraine and Georgia must be part of the joint NATO strategy with Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey for stability in the Black Sea region," Kramer wrote in a commentary for the online news portal Politico.
NATO officials are trying to keep Georgia satisfied with new proposals for cooperation. A joint training center was established last year in Tbilisi, with 30 NATO military personnel stationed there. Troops for NATO and Georgia have trained together for years in spite of constant protests from Russia. In May, for example, the Kremlin called US military maneuvers a "provocation that aims to destabilize the Caucasus." And NATO continues to train Georgia's military and support its civilian leadership. In return, Georgia takes part in nearly all of NATO's international operations, including in Afghanistan. NATO diplomats have praised Georgia for contributing more resources, in proportion to its size, and having better interoperability than some members.
So, on Wednesday and Thursday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and alliance ambassadors are visiting Tbilisi to assess Georgia's military capabilities and reassure the country of continued interest in its membership. At alliance headquarters in Brussels this June, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili called NATO membership a top priority. "We believe Euro-Atlantic integration will support the democratic process in our country," Margvelashvili said. "Parliamentary elections on October 8 will be the next step." That vote, however, could also see the election of pro-Russia parties, which are opposed NATO and EU membership.