Georgia's war with Russia has done nothing to dent the country's NATO prospects, North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told reporters on the second day of his September 15-16 visit to Tbilisi, but stressed that Georgia must step up its democratic reforms to secure membership.
On the first day of his visit, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer asserted that Georgia is on a "performance-based trajectory" toward integration with the Alliance, but in a joint press conference with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on September 16, he asserted that the war with Russia "should not be used - and, I think, is not used -- as an argument to spoil . . .the important process of reform, be it in the police, be [it] in the judicial system and be it in defense."
Avoiding "a polarized stand-off" with the opposition and continuing "your democratic reforms" were the strategies de Hoop Scheffer earlier recommended to the Georgian government via a speech to Tbilisi State University students. A consultative body has also been established to guide Georgia toward NATO membership "with a focus on key democratic and institutional goals."
"The way ahead for Georgia . . . is to push ahead with reform and to improve further its democratic institutions and practices," he stated. "[W]e shouldn't see . . .the next time" another report from international observers that Georgia's elections were "tainted," the NATO chief told reporters Tuesday evening.
De Hoop Scheffer noted that the NATO delegation had "done our homework" on this score by "talking to the government, talking to the opposition, talking to the non-governmental community, talking to the ombudsman . . . "
In what appeared to be an attempt to show that Georgia is also doing its homework, President Saakashvili headed to parliament after the evening press conference to deliver an unscheduled speech about the need for further democratic reform.
"We should get united, just as we did during the war, to rebuild our country," he told deputies. Promising to cooperate with his opponents, Saakashvili said he had reached an understanding with parliament's opposition parties on the "major issues."
Already, that commitment to facilitating democratic reform by engaging with the opposition is undergoing a test. Several larger oppostition parties without representation in parliament are now considering plans to call for early presidential and/or parliamentary elections in the spring of 2009.
Within Georgia, NATO membership is seen as a guarantee not only for the country's further stability, but as the sole deterrent against any future Russian incursion. De Hoop Scheffer repeated earlier reassurances that "the road to NATO is still wide open for Georgia" despite the war with Russia, adding that "no third parties or actors can veto NATO's effort and decision-making process."
Russian recognition of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia amounted to the "dismemberment" of Georgia, he added. But the Alliance, he said, is looking to the European Union to resolve the differences with Moscow over the two regions. "I think that is the right division of labor," he said.
At the evening press conference, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili stressed that Russia's actions towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia have done nothing to prompt Tbilisi to tread more slowly with its NATO membership campaign. The Alliance is expected to consider again granting Georgia a Membership Action Plan at a summit this December.
"Now more than ever Georgia's Euro-Atlantic course is on the irreversible track, a track that doesn't create new dividing lines and does not present any threat . . ." Saakashvili said. "Rather, it is [a] track that extends the arch of stability, security and prosperity within its cross-Atlantic space."
As a sub-text to that argument, the Georgian president repeated his intentions to provide additional "telephone intercepts" and "reports of eyewitnesses" to prove that Russian troops invaded before Georgia took action. Some of those intercepts have already been provided to The New York Times. "This cliche that conflict started when Georgian attacked South Ossetia is [a] hundred percent false," Saakashvili said.
Moscow, however, takes a different line. The Kremlin has made clear that it believes that a NATO membership for Georgia would pose a threat to its own security, and has categorically denounced the country's NATO aspirations. The Alliance, for its part, has refused to restore ties with the Kremlin until Russian troops withdraw from Georgia's disputed territories in compliance with the August 12 European Union-brokered peace deal.
As a signal that Russia will not bow to outside criticism of its actions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on September 15 traveled to Sokhumi. Lavrov, the most senior Russian official to visit Abkhazia since 1993, denied that his trip was intended as a counter-balance to De Hoop Scheffer's trip to Tbilisi, the Abkhaz state-funded news agency Apsnypress reported.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.