Defense Minister, Irakli Alasania, said he expects active discussions to start later this year and early in 2014 about specifics of what should be “next step” on Georgia’s path to NATO integration in the context of NATO summit in 2014.
“Georgia’s aspiration is to become a member of NATO and thus far we demonstrated and we will demonstrate again in upcoming presidential election that we deserve to be adequately assessed and adequately responded [by NATO allies in respect] of future integration process,” Alasania said while speaking at a public event organized by Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University on August 21.
Alasania, who is visiting Washington, urged NATO allies to think about “risks associated with not acting.”
Alasania said “not acting” and not providing sufficient help to aspirant countries in their efforts to pave the way towards eventual membership would send a “wrong signal” to Russia.
“We have to demonstrate that Russia does not have any say in relationship between NATO and Georgia,” he said. “We will have exemplary [presidential] election [on October 27] that will demonstrate that we are ready for the next step for integration.”
What this next step might be, he said, has yet to be defined.
In April PM Ivanishvili said that Georgia set a goal to get Membership Action Plan (MAP) from NATO when the Alliance holds its next summit in 2014. But speaking at a joint news conference with the NATO Secretary General on June 26 in Tbilisi, Ivanishvili said it “is not an issue, which should be elevated.”
Alasania also said on August 21 in Washington that there’s no need to create over inflated expectations from NATO summit in 2014. He, however, also said that after meetings with the North Atlantic Council after its visit to Georgia in June, he’s optimistic that NATO allies too were aware of the need to offer Georgia specific steps.
While speaking about this issue he mentioned that “we have to wait for elections in Georgia and also in Germany” and then start determining what this next step of integration might be.
In his remarks Alasania stressed Germany’s role in Georgia’s EU and NATO integration as very important.
“We are investing a lot in relationship with Germany. We are also thinking about working jointly with Germans in north of Afghanistan in post-ISAF [mission], under their command,” Alasania said.
On NATO integration, Alasania also said that membership in the Alliance was Georgia’s current government’s “top foreign policy and security priority”; he also said that it was already decided by the North Atlantic Council to make Georgia part of the NATO Response Force in 2015; he said this decision “speaks of itself how much Georgian troops and Georgian defense is valued.”
During his presentation, Alasania also noted that the role of previous governments in achieving the progress Georgia now has should also be acknowledged.
“The Georgia which we see today is hard work of a lot of people in the previous administrations. The first president was someone who brought Georgia the independence, President [Eduard] Shevardnadze was the first one who actually started talking about NATO and the future of Georgia in NATO. Then the third president, Mikheil Saakashvili, made all the efforts to make this progress and a lot of new initiatives were started to integrate more closely and to modernize Georgia's state. And we have to acknowledge this and appreciate this and base the forward movement on the solid ground that was built by previous administrations,” he said.
Commenting on these remarks by the Defense Minister, President Saakashvili said on August 23 that Alasania “is really the most adequate minister in the current government."
Alasania also said that despite of difficulties, political cohabitation was made possible in Georgia. “No matter that we all made mistakes of course – and there was a lot of emotions flowing after the elections, but I think things are now settled,” he said.
U.S.-Georgia Defense Cooperation
Alasania spoke at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute right after his bilateral meeting with U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon on August 21.
He said that he discussed with Secretary Hagel how “to expand our military-to-military cooperation”. Alasania said that it was confirmed during the talks that all six points of the agreement reached during a meeting of President Saakashvili and President Obama in the White House in January, 2012 to enhance defense cooperation “will be fully implemented.” But it won’t happen overnight, he added.
He said that before acquiring defense capabilities from the U.S. or any other partner, Georgia needs to learn how to then “sustain” those capabilities.
“We want to invest more [in] training, education, infrastructure and logistics so that we can sustain the defense capabilities that we will acquire” from the U.S. or from elsewhere, Alasania said.
During the presentation, Alasania also said: “The state of Georgian defense is not that weak as some people are alluding.”
Ivanishvili’s Intended Pre-Term Resignation ‘Not a Tragedy’
Asked if he thought that PM Ivanishvili’s statement about intended pre-term resignation would cause political uncertainty, Alasania responded: “As a partner, as an ally I urge Bidzina Ivanishvili not to do that.”
“But on the other hand from the very beginning he was saying that he was not intending to stay [in government] for a long time and we felt that at certain point he would be talking about this. So this time has arrived. We do not know yet exactly how it will work out,” Alasania said.
He, however, also said that Ivanishvili’s pre-term resignation would “not be a tragedy.”
“It will be even healthy for Georgian democracy. One of the flaws of [governance in Georgia] was [having] too many [political] heavyweights… They were dominating the whole political space,” he said.
“I think that if he departs from politics – and probably he will, but it’s too early to talk about timing now – I think there will be more competitive environment for the Georgian political parties for development… so I think it will only benefit to Georgia’s future democratic institutions. He [Ivanishvili] is a man of [his] word; so far he’s track record of saying things and delivering is very high,” Alasania said.
Relations with Russia
The Georgian Defense Minister said that current government’s “new policy” towards Russia, involving lowering rhetoric and launching direct talks on economic issues, would give Georgia more possibility to focus on internal development and its economy, as well as will give more space to Tbilisi to deal with Abkhazians and Ossetians.
He also noted that Georgia had not illusion that Russia would change its stance over Georgia’s territorial integrity or NATO aspirations.
On the breakaway regions, Alasania said: “Future in Europe together with Georgia will be more lucrative for them rather than staying under the Russian occupation; that’s the matter of time and patience.” He also added that he’s confident about starting talks with Abkhazians and Ossetians “pretty soon”.
He also said that Georgia’s current government declared openly about its readiness to cooperate with Russia in contributing to security of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
“We do not want to give any pretext to anybody to blame Georgia for not cooperating and for not having contributed to security environment for the Olympics. Even with this very hard legacy of war and occupation from the Russia side, we think that counterterrorism is issue [where] we can cooperate with everybody in the region,” the Georgian Defense Minister said.
Alasania said that it might also be an opportunity to cooperate with local law enforcement agencies in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Relations with Israel
Asked about relations with Israel, Alasania said that PM Ivanishvili’s recent visit to Israel was “a huge success”.
“We eased some of their concerns vis-à-vis our relations with Iran. They are confident that whatever we do in the region and [in relations with] Iran, it will not go against Israel,” Alasania said, adding that he’s looking forward visiting Israel “pretty soon.”
“Israel was one of the main partners in building our defensive capabilities… So we hope that we’ll be able to continue this,” he said.