NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at a November 2011 meeting of the NATO-Georgia Council in Tbilisi.
For the first time, NATO officially named Georgia as an "aspirant" country, a category that had previously been limited to three Balkan nations: Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro. In its communique after the foreign ministers' meeting last week in Brussels, NATO said:
We applaud the significant operational support provided to NATO by our aspirant partners the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia¹, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Georgia.
We reaffirm our Open Door policy and our strong commitment to the Euro-Atlantic integration of our aspirant partners, in accordance with previous decisions taken at the Bucharest, Strasbourg-Kehl and Lisbon Summits. Democratic values, regional cooperation, and good neighbourly relations are important for lasting peace and stability. We welcome progress aspirant countries have made and we encourage them to continue to implement the necessary decisions and reforms to advance their Euro-Atlantic aspirations.
Georgia, naturally, praised the move. From Civil.ge:
Giorgi Baramidze, the Georgian state minister for Euro-Atlantic integration issues, welcomed the wording of the communiqué, saying it was “the first time when Georgia was named in an official NATO document in a status of NATO membership candidate country.”
And Russia, just as naturally, condemned it. From a press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, on the the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia website:
I noted that the communiqué issued yesterday by the Foreign Ministers of NATO contains the term “aspirant partners,” i.e. partners seeking to join NATO. Georgia is among the countries so designated. I openly warned our colleagues that they may unwittingly push Georgia’s current regime toward a repetition of its August 2008 adventure, which occurred shortly after the NATO summit in Bucharest, where it was written down categorically that Georgia would be a NATO member. Given the mentality of Mikhail Saakashvili, I have no doubt that this played an important role in his taking the mad and reckless decision. I expressed hope that NATO will approach responsibly the encouragement of such events in the region, which is strategic for the South Caucasus countries and the Russian Federation. Our closest allies and neighbors live there. I hope that I was heard.
In a background briefing after the NATO-Russia meeting at the Brussels conference, U.S. State Department officials reiterated that Georgia was now in the company of the three Balkan aspirants:
And then finally, we had four countries that would like to become member of the alliance – Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia, and Georgia – and we talked about the importance of keeping the door to NATO membership open to these countries and to use the Chicago summit to send a signal of what they would continue to need to do in order to become members, a wide ranging discussion that went deep into the night, until 11 o’clock. And everybody spoke.
So is this a substantial policy shift, or just a rhetorical one? Either way, it'll bear keeping an eye on.