President Mikheil Saakashvili and members of his administration are now optimistic that Georgia could gain membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization by 2009. But some local political analysts warn it is still too early to establish a timeline for the country's accession.
Speculation mounted about Georgia's membership timetable after NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer noted in a major policy address on February 9 that he would like to see the alliance "coming closer to honoring the ambitions of Ukraine and Georgia." Saakashvili embraced the speech as "another clear sign" of Georgia's progress toward full membership in the Atlantic alliance. "The NATO Secretary General himself has for the first time named the date of Georgia's NATO accession," Georgian television news broadcast Saakashvili as saying on February 12 while visiting the South Ossetian conflict zone.
However, local analysts suggest that Saakashvili was perhaps reading too much into the secretary-general's speech. Shalva Pichkhadze, chairman of the Georgia for NATO non-governmental organization, believes that de Hoop Scheffer had other countries in mind when he stated that he would like "to see more countries in NATO" in 2009.
"What the NATO [secretary-general] said does not concern Georgia," Pichkhadze maintained. "T]he best option for Georgia [would be] if it gets an invitation in 2009."
Even if Georgia receives an invitation to join the alliance by 2009, Pichkhadze added, an additional one to two years would be needed before the country could actually be admitted as a full member. Georgia is currently seven months into its Intensified Dialogue, a requirement that is one step closer to receiving a Membership Action Plan, the final stage before a membership offer, but not an official benchmark for NATO membership. Three other countries Croatia, Albania and Macedonia have already started work on fulfilling Membership Action Plans requirements.
Frank Boland, the director of NATO's Defense Policy and Planning Department, struck a measured note on Georgia's NATO aspirations during a February 23 visit to Tbilisi. In an interview with the Ministry of Defense press service, he noted that while Georgia has shown a "clear willingness" to make the reforms needed for membership, there is still a lot of work to do. "People need to be very careful about the assumptions they made about NATO enlargement," he said. "NATO continues to have an open door policy. We continue to look seriously at countries who wish to join NATO. But the whole process of moving towards NATO membership will be based on performance of specific targets."
A similar note of caution is sounded in some corners of the Georgian government. In an email interview with EurasiaNet, Elene Khoshtaria, a senior staff member in the Office of the State Minister for Euro-Atlantic Integration, stressed that although Secretary-General de Hoop Scheffer's comments provided "very important support to Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations," the country cannot expect to force the timeline for its accession. "[W]e, of course, cannot speak for 26 nations."
The official Georgian Foreign Ministry position is that the alliance is "positive" about the military reforms Georgia has made to date. Approximately seven rounds of consultations with the alliance occur during a candidate member's Intensified Dialogue; Georgia's second round is scheduled for March. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Judicial reform constitutes perhaps the biggest NATO membership-related challenge for Georgia at present, said Tornike Sharashenidze, director of the Georgian Foreign Ministry's NATO Information Center. The alliance has repeatedly stressed the need for a more independent judiciary. "We can already observe progress," Sharashenidze added, pointing to Georgia's "improved" investment climate as an indicator that judiciary reforms are gaining steam.
While NATO continues to stress democratic institution building, analysts like Pichkhadze contend that the country's geopolitical situation also plays a role in the membership process.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pichkhadze argued, "did a favor" for Georgia when, at the Munich Security Conference on February 10, he accused NATO of "building virtual walls" between Russia and the rest of the world, and accused the alliance of making a "serious provocation" by considering expansion into Russia's "near abroad."
"Such threatening signals
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter and photojournalist based in Tbilisi.