One Step Forward, Three Quarters of a Step Back

This has been a confounding few days for Georgia as it celebrates its Independence Day. The EU ENM summit in Riga did not lead to any major breakthroughs for Tbilisi like the much hoped for clear establishment of visa liberalization, but the EU continued to express support for Georgia and for its longer term goal of becoming part of the EU. Thus, the long established pattern of supportive words, modest achievements and steady, but agonizingly slow progress, that has characterized Georgia’s European aspirations for a decade or so, was again in evidence in Riga. In a similar vein, a few days before Riga, Georgia’s Speaker of Parliament David Usupashvili made both Georgia’s hopes and frustrations regarding NATO clear when he told a group of NATO parliamentarians in Budapest,

“‘Open doors’ policy will demonstrate that Russia cannot oppress NATO member states and we proved that there are red lines. It is high time for Georgia to make one more step to NATO integration but it shall be the crucial steps and the Warsaw Summit is a due venue for it. As always, we count on you – NATO responsible politicians – it is time to make political decisions for Georgia. Thus, from Warsaw summit we expect MAP or adoption of the declaration that Georgia does no longer need MAP for accession to NATO.” 

Usupashvili’s hopes are unlikely to be realized at the next NATO summit, scheduled for July of 2016 in Warsaw. It is more likely that in Warsaw, as in Wales, Chicago, Bucharest and elsewhere in recent years, Georgia will receive encouragement, verbal promises but still fall short of either a MAP or a commitment to membership without MAP. The question for Tbilisi, as well as for NATO, is whether the feelings of eternal hope, and deja vu, that characterize Georgia’s current relationship with NATO, will begin to give way to something else.

According to recent public opinion research by NDI and anecdotal evidence from Georgia, most Georgians continue to support Georgia’s European and NATO aspirations. However, whereas a few years ago this preference could be described as a consensus or virtually unanimous, today it is better understood as simply an impressive majority. An impressive majority is still sufficient for Georgia to present itself as unambiguously seeking to become part of the west, but if that support declines, and NATO and the EU become contested issues, Georgia will be in a very different and more difficult situation.

There are several reasons why the Georgian public may be slowly moving away from what was once a pro-west consensus. First, Russian efforts to gain influence in Georgia through interventions in political, media and civic life have begun to bear fruit. It is easy to blame faltering support for NATO entirely on Russia, a political posture that feels very comfortable to a Georgian and American political elite who have grown quick to blame every setback in Georgia on their powerful northern neighbor. This, however, is only a partial explanation of a more complex phenomenon.

Second, as Georgia’s aggressive pursuit of NATO and the EU now enters its second decade, it is becoming challenging, even implausible, for the Georgian people to continue to interpret the seemingly eternal stream of promises from the west as a reason for hope. Accordingly, the Georgian people are increasingly tempted to resign themselves to accepting that NATO and EU membership are not going to happen, and to begin to look elsewhere for their country’s future.

This would be a mistake, but it would be an understandable one. It is also premature to understand public opinion in Georgia so negatively. The more important, and positive, story in Georgia is that despite the at times agonizingly slow nature of the westward path on which Georgia finds itself, the people still want to stay on that path. This is a asset that should not be squandered either by the Georgian leadership who cannot afford further domestic erosion of Georgia’s western aspirations, or by those in the west who would like to bring Georgia in to NATO and the EU.

For years now, Georgia’s NATO and EU goals have been deeply tied to domestic politics. Political parties compete with each other to demonstrate their western ambitions, while questioning those of their opponents. Similarly, parties outside of power criticize the government for being unable to deliver NATO or EU membership quickly enough. There is an internal political logic to this, but it tends to deepen the problem. Parties in power, for domestic political reasons, must promise unrealistic timetables for joining these organizations, and then so as to avoid confronting their failures to meet these timetables, are compelled to interpret every positive statement by the west, no matter how modest, as proof that NATO and EU membership are just around the corner. This ensures that the cycle of over promising and unmet expectations will continue regardless of who is in power.

The more troubling result of Georgian governments' spinning  every summit, statement and official visit as a success and as evidence that integration into NATO and EU is imminent, is that it makes it more difficult for these governments to build domestic support for doing the hard work necessary to convince those that are reluctant to bring Georgia into the NATO. The deeper problems are not fully addressed because while governments have been able to build support for integration with the west they have been less successful mobilizing resources for doing the last bit of very hard work necessary to get there. This, in turn, makes it easier for NATO and the EU to keep Georgia waiting. 

The EU, and in particular NATO, are divided with regards to Georgia. Several countries like Poland, Lithuania or even the US have been more supportive than others such as France and Germany. This is an unfortunate political reality for Georgia and one that may indeed raise the bar for NATO membership for Georgia higher than it has been for other countries that have recently joined the alliance. Nonetheless, Georgia can only have a chance of overcoming this if it energetically tackles the issues of political development and reform to which NATO and the EU have drawn attention. Overly positive interpretations of NATO or EU statements and promises that membership is just around the corner, disincentivize that hard work.

Western allies of Georgia also face a dilemma with regards to Tbilisi. In short, they can either bemoan growing Russian influence in Georgia or they can continue to delay and equivocate about Georgia’s movement towards NATO and the EU. They cannot, however, continue to do both. Western powers are undoubtedly aware that if the slow erosion of popular support for Georgia’s western ambitions continue in that country, then questions of NATO and EU membership will be moot within a few years. For those countries in Europe and NATO who have never been enthusiastic supporters of Georgia, this is perhaps ideal. It makes it possible to keep Georgia out of NATO and the EU without ever having to make a fight over it. 

For Georgia’s true allies, however, it is a different and more troubling story. They recognize that the growing Russian influence in Georgia means that bringing Georgia into NATO is now a political fight not just within NATO, but also against time. Every summit that goes by with only words for Georgia is now a win for Russia. Again, this is not a time consideration in the 12-24 month range, but probably in the five to ten year range. Even the biggest advocates for bringing Georgia into NATO, whether Georgian or not, probably recognize that the way things are going now another few years of promises with no follow up is not sustainable and will eventually bring Georgia’s NATO aspirations to a close.

The west can stop the clock by giving Georgia a MAP or, as Usupashvili has argued, an alternate, but equally clear, path to NATO membership. If NATO is unable to do this, the longer game, at least for now, favors Russia. The narrative that the west and NATO represent unfulfilled promises and enduring economic stagnation is one that dovetails very powerfully with Russian propaganda and soft power in Georgia, all the more so because there is more than a little truth to it. As the years go by this narrative will continue to get stronger; and promises from the west will be seen with correspondingly increasing skepticism. 

It should also be kept in mind that Georgia is not a perfect NATO or EU candidate, by any means. Concerns about the still fragile state of Georgia’s democracy, unresolved territorial issues involving South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the persistent threat posed to Georgia by Russia and widespread poverty and unemployment all give pause to EU and NATO members. These reasons cannot be ignored or brushed aside, but after all these years the west owes Georgia some honest feedback about their future; and Georgia owes itself an honest assessment of its likely future and what remains to be done.

The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet space.  If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research, analysis or consulting for your business, government, campaign or other organization, please email