NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer’s February 10 remarks that the alliance should come “closer to honoring the ambitions of Ukraine and Georgia” by 2009 was described by President Saakashvili as an announcement of a date for Georgia’s accession to the North Atlantic alliance.
“This is yet another clear sign of the irreversibility of Georgia’s NATO integration process,” President Saakashvili said on February 12 while visiting the South Ossetian conflict zone.
“I have always refrained from answering the question: when Georgia will become a NATO member state? We have never said an exact date. But now the NATO Secretary General himself has for the first time named the date of Georgia’s NATO accession. So far NATO also refrained from doing this,” he added.
Georgian Parliamentary Chairperson Nino Burjanadze hailed the NATO Secretary General’s remarks as “historic.”
“The goal about which we have been talking and working for so long is now becoming real,” she said at a session of the parliamentary bureau on February 12.
Questioning Georgia’s NATO ambitions could lead to being labeled as a ‘Russian spy’ or at least ‘pro-Russian’ in Georgia, where, according to recent polls, up to 83% of the population is for NATO membership.
But debates over the country’s NATO integration were sparked anyway last week when influential lawmaker from the ruling National Movement Party Givi Targamadze alleged that after the failure of wanted ex-security chief Igor Giorgadze’s party in Georgia, Russia has started to redirect its funding into other political forces, namely the newly-created National Forum party. This party has questioned the logic of Georgia becoming part of NATO.
“We have a legitimate question: if Georgia becomes NATO member without at first solving separatist conflicts, what would that mean? Does it mean that we will have Russian soldiers and NATO forces standing on our soil simultaneously, which would be equal to splitting the country into the several parts of Abkhazia and South Ossetia [where Russian troops are stationed as peacekeepers] and the rest of Georgia?” Irakli Melashvili, a politician from National Forum, said.
In public statements recently aired on Georgian TV stations, activists from the National Forum, including MP Gocha Jojua, claimed that the NATO Secretary General allegedly said the alliance was not interested in Georgia’s territorial integrity.
The Tbilisi-based non-governmental organization New Generation-New Initiative (nGnI), which has organized a number of public awareness campaigns on NATO, issued a statement saying that the remarks about the NATO Secretary General's alleged statement “are not true.”
“It is the right of a party or of an individual to voice a position on NATO, but it is absolutely unacceptable to distort facts intentionally or unintentionally,” nGnI said in a statement.
Head of the Georgian government-supported NATO Information Center Tornike Sharashenidze says that there are clear attempts by “certain political forces” to discredit Georgia’s NATO ambitions among society.
“In Ukraine there is no consensus in society about NATO membership. In recent week we have seen attempts by certain political forces to split society about this issue in Georgia as well. There have been talks that neutrality is good, and not NATO. But this kind of trend will fail here [in Georgia],” Sharashenidze told RFE/RL Georgian Service on February 12.
The notion that for Georgia to become a NATO member before solving secessionist conflicts would be equal to losing Abkhazia and South Ossetia has also recently emerged in the Russian press. The Russian web-site Regnum posted a commentary on February 12 arguing the idea.
“If Georgia becomes a NATO member without solving its conflicts, Tbilisi will have to forget about South Ossetia and Abkhazia forever. It is at least naive to think that Russia would pull out from Abkhazia and South Ossetia after NATO bases are located in Georgia,” the commentary reads.
The recent debate coincides with a statement made by Russian Ambassador to Georgia Vyacheslav Kovalenko, who said on February 6 that Moscow wants Georgia to be a neutral country.
Public support towards Georgia’s NATO integration has increased against the background of the recent Russian-Georgian confrontation from 74% in April 2006 to 83% in December 2006, according to a public opinion poll conducted by the Lithuanian Baltic Surveys, a member of the Gallup Organization.
Only 12% of 1,400 respondents surveyed throughout Georgia said they are against the country’s membership in NATO, according to the survey, which was commissioned by the Georgian State Minister’s Office for Euro-Atlantic Integration Issues.
But 79% also said they are against allowing military bases of any foreign country on Georgian soil.