U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili in Washington on February 26. (photo: U.S. State Department)
The U.S. State Department has endorsed granting Georgia its long-coveted status as an aspiring NATO member, the Membership Action Plan, on the heels of Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili'shigh-profile trip to Washington. It's not clear whether this represents a substantive policy shift, but it is the first time in recent memory that the U.S. has explicitly come out in favor of MAP.
In response to a recent letter by 40 members of Congress urging the State Department to "advocate granting MAP to Georgia, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State of Legislative Affairs Julia Frifield wrote:
We believe Georgia deserves credit at the upcoming NATO Summit for the progress it has made and its demonstrated commitment to NATO operations and standards. We stand ready to support Georgia's own efforts to build a consensus within the Alliance for granting it a Membership Action Plan.
Now, that isn't the strongest statement ever, and Secretary of State John Kerry's remarks with Gharibashvili repeated what has been the standard Washington line that "We stand by the Bucharest decision and all subsequent decisions that Georgia will become a member of NATO," adding that: "The United States will work to make sure that Georgia’s progress is acknowledged by all members of this year’s NATO Summit."
(It was the 2008 Bucharest summit, recall, where NATO declined to give Georgia MAP but instead said that Georgia and Ukraine "will become members of NATO." And we see how that worked out in Ukraine...)
Georgian officials are saying -- again -- that they will make some concrete progress towards NATO integration during the alliance's next summit in Wales in September. “There is a high probability that at the next summit we will have new instruments for closer integration with NATO. Whether it will be called a MAP [Membership Action Plan] or it will be a new instrument… it has yet to be decided,” said Defense Minister Irakli Alasania in an interview with Rustavi 2 TV, reported Civil.ge. But will that help Georgia regain its lost territories?
That's what Georgia's new cabinet minister in charge of affairs in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Paata Zakareishvili, told The Bug Pit. Not because those breakaway territories want to be part of NATO, but because it would signal strength. I didn't bring up NATO in our interview, but Zakareishvili did: "We need to see very serious steps toward NATO to show Abkhazia and South Ossetia.... the European institutions should have our back, so we feel strong. It's quite clear that it's too early to talk about MAP, but there are signals... that there is progress. If we had MAP, we'd be more confident talking with the Abkhaz and Russians, we could say 'Look. we're going there anyway.'"
He continues: "NATO is not attractive [to Abkhazia] but it's the reality. Georgia is not part of any regional security organization. We left Russia's, the CIS, we don't see any prospects there. Now we're in a transitional period. We left somewhere but we haven't reached anywhere else yet. And the Abkhaz see this. And they see that nobody accepts Georgia, or didn't accept us for a long time, so what's the point of talking with Georgia? Here is Russia, which is more secure -- maybe it's not the ideal system, but it's still more secure. So why should we follow Georgia, if Georgia has no prospects? We need to show that Georgia is clearly going toward Europe."
Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze meets with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (photo: NATO)
At this week's NATO foreign ministerial meetings in Brussels, the alliance's secretary general had effusive praise for aspiring member Georgia. Praising recent "free, fair and inclusive" elections, Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that "Georgia serves as a model for the wider region." And in his mostly widely quoted comments, he said that "In the five years since we created the NATO-Georgia Commission, Georgia has moved closer to NATO."
As one wag on twitter put it, Rasmussen's statement could as easily have been made in 2005 or 2007 as today. And indeed there is a bit of the Zeno's paradox to Georgia's NATO progress, continually getting "closer" while seemingly having to way to actually arrive.
And trying to play the spoiler, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was in Brussels as well. And in a press conference there he described NATO expansion as a continuation of the Cold War. Via Civil.ge:
Lavrov said that NATO enlargement, not only in the context of Georgia but in general, represents “continuation of Soviet-old inertial logic of the ‘cold war’.”
“It implies not only preserving the dividing lines, which we have all committed to remove, but it’s also implies moving them [these lines] further to the East, which fundamentally contravenes commitments that we have undertaken at the highest level on indivisibility of security,” Lavrov said. “No one should take steps creating risks to the security of partners.”
Turkey's choice of a Chinese air defense system continues to dominate the agenda between Turkey and its Western partners in NATO. Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davotoglu, is in Washington this week and that issue is on the agenda. And the deal was also the hot topic at a NATO Industry Forum last week, organized by NATO and Turkey's Undersecretariat for Defense Industries, which your Bug Pit was able to attend.
If you haven't been following, the controversy began in September, when after a drawn-out competition, Turkey announced that it had chosen the Chinese HQ-9 air and missile defense system. The Chinese system was competing against ones from Russia, the U.S., and Europe, so the competition appeared to have -- rightly or wrongly -- a geopolitical component. So the pick of the Chinese system renewed fears that Turkey, under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was drifting away from the West toward the East. More specifically, NATO partners are concerned that the system won't be able to be securely integrated into the NATO air defense system in which Turkey already participates (though many in Turkey claim that is merely a pretext by Western companies and governments who resent losing business and influence to China).
As criticism from NATO allies continues to pour in, Turkey appears to be reconsidering its decision to buy a Chinese air defense system. Last week, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who made the final call to buy the Chinese system over American, European and Russian competitors, suggested there were some conditions under which Turkey would change its mind:
Despite criticism from its NATO allies, Turkey would only give up co-producing a long-range air and missile defense system with a Chinese firm currently under US sanctions if the company were to decide to pull out of the deal, leading Turkey to talk to other bidders, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said...
"The Chinese system will be checked to see if it fits NATO standards,” Erdoğan said.
And on Tuesday, Reuters reported that Turkey has asked the American bidder, Raytheon, to not give up quite yet.
The sources familiar with the US proposal to supply a Raytheon-built Patriot missile defense system said Turkish officials had requested an extension of the pricing included in the bid while their talks continued with China.
"It's clear that they are trying to hedge their bets," said one of the sources.
During a visit to Latvia this week, Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov got just what he wanted: recognition from a Western leader and promises of more, without any annoying questions about his well-documented human rights abuses.
Following a meeting with Karimov on October 17, Latvian President Andris Berzins promised that in the first half of 2015, when Latvia holds the rotating European Union presidency, improving relations between the EU and Central Asia would be high on the Baltic nation’s agenda, Latvia's Leta news agency reported.
Berzins also promised to back Tashkent’s bid to join the World Trade Organization.
At least publicly, Latvian officials failed to mention Uzbekistan’s troubled human rights record, instead prioritizing economic and security cooperation. Uzbekistan is critical to the so-called Northern Distribution Network, which NATO uses to supply, and now withdraw from, the war in Afghanistan. Latvia lies at the other end of the vast network spanning the former Soviet Union.
The Baltic nation, a member of both the EU and NATO, has been criticized in the past for offering undeserving prestige to Central Asian autocrats craving attention from Western leaders. Last year Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov met Berzins in Riga. Again, human rights were not publicly discussed. Berzins doubled the tribute with a visit to Ashgabat this year.
Ahead of Karimov's visit to Riga, activists urged Berzins to address human rights.
Turkey's American and NATO allies have not responded well to the announcement that Turkey plans to buy an air defense system from China, bypassing American and European systems.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters: "We, of course, have conveyed our serious concerns about the Turkish government’s contract discussions with a U.S. sanctioned company for a missile defense system that will not be interoperable with NATO systems or collective defense capabilities. Our discussions will continue." (The Chinese manufacturer of the winning system, China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corp., is under U.S. sanctions for doing business with Iran, but it seems unlikely that is Washington's real issue with the deal.) And the U.S. ambassador to Turkey added: "Turkey is a NATO ally. When we see the need for its defense we act as an ally and we are going to do that for as long as we are allies... We hope you will choose a NATO compatible system so that you will have the best air defense system in the world.”
And officials who spoke anonymously were significantly more negative. From Defense News:
“How could Turkey, protected by NATO assets, ignore the alliance’s concerns and opt for an air defense system to be built by a non-friendly country?” asked a NATO defense attaché in Ankara....
The Chinese HQ-9 air defense system, just chosen by Turkey. (photo: Jian Kang, Wikimedia Commons)
Turkey has chosen a Chinese air defense system over Russian, American, and European competitors, apparently prioritizing business concerns over the wishes of its allies. Reports Hurriyet Daily News:
Ankara has granted a long-awaited tender for long-range missile and air defense systems to Chinese contenders, dismissing bids from major NATO allies as the United States, France and Italy.
With the decision, announced today following a meeting of the Undersecretariat for Defense Industries' executive council, which is headed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Ankara has approved the lowest offer despite worries about the Chinese system’s ultimate compatibility with NATO-owned early warning assets.
The Chinese offer of the HQ-9, at $3 billion, was significantly cheaper than the competing U.S. Patriot, Russian S-400, and French-Italian Eurosam Samp-T systems. And perhaps more importantly, China was willing to co-produce the HQ-9 together with Turkey, a key factor for Ankara, which places a high priority on building up its own defense industry.
Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili meets NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Tbilisi in June, 2013. (photo: NATO)
Since the election last year of Bidzina Ivanishvili as Georgia's prime minister, the Kremlin seems to have taken a wait-and-see approach to Georgia's new government. Ivanishvili came to power with a promise to repair relations with Russia by changing the tone -- but not necessarily the substance -- of Tbilisi's foreign policy. Specifically, Ivanishvili and his government have sworn that their dedication to gaining NATO membership -- the crux of Moscow's conflict with Tbilisi -- remains unchanged. Russian officials have been relatively quiet about that for the year since Ivanishvili's election, but in an interview with Russia Direct, Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin made it clear that it does not see Ivanishvili as an ally, and remains concerned about Georgia's relations with NATO.
The ongoing discussion of Georgia's accession to NATO causes legitimate concerns for us, and political changes in Tbilisi do not give any reason for the softening of our position in this issue. NATO perspective would lead to increased tension in the South Caucasus and would have serious consequences for geopolitical stability in the region.
Besides this, Georgian membership would have a negative impact on the entire range of relations between Russia and the alliance. We hope that NATO members take the most responsible approach to the issue. In relations with Tbilisi, they should focus their efforts on promoting stability and security in the region, including, of course, peaceful coexistence of Georgia with its neighbors, especially with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev meets NATO Secretary General in Brussels. (photo: NATO)
Just days after finishing up his duties as a host of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit, Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev headed to Brussels to meet with the heads of the SCO's would-be geopolitical rivals, the European Union and NATO.
From the EU, Atambayev got money -- 30 million Euros in economic aid and another 13.5 million for projects to help build the rule of law -- and some guarded praise for its decision "to pursue political and economic reforms and to consolidate a democratic multiparty system."
And from NATO, Kyrgyzstan was offered an expansion in security cooperation activities, particularly in combatting drug trafficking. Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said after their meeting:
Now, also beyond our ISAF operation, I think there is the potential for cooperation and partnership. One thing is our counter-narcotics projects. Within the NATO-Russia Council we have trained and educated counter-narcotics officers from across the region, including Kyrgyzstan, and I do believe that also beyond our ISAF mission there is a need to continue those counter-narcotics efforts.
Today I have also mentioned disaster response, logistics and defence reform as possible areas for enhanced cooperation.