Georgia debates NATO membership excluding defence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia

12 September 2019
Former NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen (Tabula)

Comments by a former NATO Secretary-General regarding a possible path for Georgia into NATO have spurred a heated debate in the country. Anders Fogh Rasmussen suggested that Georgia ask for NATO membership with Article 5 applying only to territories controlled by the central government.

Rasmussen, whose controversial remarks came at an international conference on 10 September in Tbilisi, suggested that excluding Abkhazia and South Ossetia from coverage under Article 5 of the NATO treaty could help ‘break the stalemate’ around Georgia’s NATO membership.

Article 5 of the alliance covers the principle of collective defence, wherein an attack against one member is considered as an attack against all.

The idea first began to be seriously discussed in 2018, after a report by the Heritage Foundation suggested ‘this would allow Georgia to join NATO more quickly’.

‘Some NATO members are concerned that Georgia’s entry into NATO would trigger an automatic war with Russia over its occupation of the Tskhinvali Region and Abkhazia. Georgian officials privately say that they are happy to accept a NATO membership arrangement or compromise that excludes the two occupied territories from NATO’s Article 5 security guarantee until the matter is resolved peacefully with the Russians’, author Luke Coffey said.

Following Rasmussen’s comments on Tuesday, opposition parties the United National Movement (UNM) and European Georgia expressed support for the move. The plan was criticised by the opposition Alliance of Patriots, which suggested the scheme would fail and that Georgia would be forced to ‘admit that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are not Georgian territories’.

The Alliance of Patriots has long opposed Georgia’s bid for NATO membership, advocating for a ‘neutral’ foreign policy including closer ties to Russia.

The ruling Georgian Dream Party did not take a clear stand on the initiative, with MP Gia Volski saying the idea was interesting while Vice-Speaker of Parliament Tamar Chugoshvili said ‘the government supports Georgia becoming NATO member with its entire territory’ and that ‘speculating on this topic is wrong’.

What could limited appliance of Article 5 mean for Georgia?

During the conference on Tuesday, Rasmussen argued that Georgia should have been granted a Membership Action Plan (MAP) in 2008 and that he was personally in favour of this. 

The 2008 Bucharest Summit Declaration noted that NATO ‘welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership’ and that ‘these countries will become members of NATO’. It also noted that a ‘MAP is the next step for Ukraine and Georgia on their direct way to membership’.

‘I think that we should have done that. I think we send the wrong message to Putin, a message of hesitation, lack of decisiveness and he exploited that situation’, Rasmussen said. 

‘And I see a clear link between that Nato hesitation at the April summit in 2008 and his [Putin’s] attack against Georgia in August 2008. He wanted to send a clear message to Georgia and not least to NATO: Don’t meddle in our neighbourhood. I think we could have avoided that if we granted MAP to Georgia and Ukraine.’

He suggested Georgia should discuss internally whether it would accept an arrangement where NATO’s article 5 would only cover the territory controlled by the Georgia government. 

‘And in NATO, we have to also reflect on that question. We have a precedent: Germany was divided into East and West Germany. Germany entered NATO in 1955 but only West Germany. East Germany did not, and NATO rules did not apply to east Germany. But when Germany was reunified in 1990–1991, NATO rules also covered East Germany. In principle, the same arrangement could be elaborated for Georgia’, said Rasmussen. 

He argued that not doing so provided the Russian president with a de facto veto over Georgia’s NATO membership. ‘[Putin] can forever prevent Georgia, Ukraine, and other neighbouring countries from joining NATO just by creating these simmering conflicts and keep them simmering’.

Giga Bokeria, one of the leaders of the European Georgia Party told OC Media that Georgia should endorse the idea in order to protect itself from Russia. He added that the Alliance of Patriots and ‘partially the government too’ were following Russian propaganda  by suggesting that this would mean relinquishing Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

‘It’s quite the contrary: We are strengthening out territorial integrity and gaining a chance to regain territories peacefully. The rest of Georgia will be protected by NATO. What is their suggestion? To start a war with Russia? This is all Russian propaganda which started in 2006 before the Bucharest Summit’, said Bokeria.

Former Georgian Defence Minister Tina Khidasheli also shared her support for the idea. Khidasheli served as Defence Minister from 2015–2016, until her Republican Party left the Georgian Dream led coalition.

‘I hope that this type of model will be as successful for Georgia as it was for Germany. This is the only pragmatic possibility for Georgia to become a NATO member within its internationally recognised borders, which includes Abkhazia and South Ossetia’, Khidasheli, who  told OC Media

However, James Appathurai, the NATO Secretary General’s Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, poured cold water on the idea in a Facebook post on Wednesday, saying that ‘there is no point in a discussion of this issue now’.

‘I don’t see an appetite in NATO to consider this, nor do I believe the current international security environment makes this idea timely’, Appathurai said.

Opponents or neutrals?

Irma Inashvili, the leader of Alliance of Patriots Party initially refused to disclose her views on Rasmussen’s proposal. She instead misinterpreted a passage from the 2018 Heritage Foundation report as saying that Georgia should enter NATO without Abkhazia and South Ossetia. 

The following day, she said that Rasmussen’s proposal would be acceptable if Georgia were guaranteed to become member within 2–3 months and if ‘it happens in the same format as Israel-US relations, wherein, if there is a war, the US protects Israel’.

‘However, this will not happen and we will lose years chattering. Meanwhile, we will be made to admit that Sokhumi and Tskhinvali are not Georgian Territories’, said Inashvili. 

She labeled the initiative an adventure of former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who supported the move, and ‘an attempt to drag Georgia into a new war’.

The chair of the Georgian Parliament, Archil Talakvadze, took a neutral stance on Thursday when commenting on the proposal. ‘The discussion of a particular proposal on membership must be held by NATO’s high officials’, he said. 

Opposition from Russia

In November 2016, as Georgia hosted a joint NATO-Georgia military training, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that ‘Russia sees this activity as a serious threat to peace and stability in the region’.

Tornike Sharashenidze, a professor of international relations at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs (GIPA) told OC Media that if the Georgian government pursued Rasmussen’s proposal, ‘probably we shouldn’t expect any positive moves’ from Russia. However, he said that if Georgia were to become a member of NATO, ‘Russia won’t dare to make a move’.

On 12 September, while on an official visit to Georgia, Madeleine Moon, the President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly said that Georgia should concentrate on satisfying all the standards and criteria that would be needed for NATO membership. 

Moon, who is British, said that she would not appreciate it had she been given a similar suggestion of giving up Scotland in exchange for a successful Brexit. 

For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.

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