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NATO Treads Carefully in South Caucasus
/ 30 Jun.'04 / 18:26
Commentary by Jaba Devdariani

Georgia Urged to Perform

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov at the NATO summit.
Photo: NATO web-site.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Istanbul summit has ended. In the aftermath of the conference, the Alliance has expressed its interest in South Caucasus, but placed the ball firmly in the court of the Georgian government by prompting Georgian officials to prove their country’s aspirations for closer cooperation by moving beyond mere declarations.

The NATO summit was a success for Georgia in at least one area. The final communiqué of the Summit has made ratification of the Amended Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty by the allies conditional on the implementation of Russia’s Istanbul commitments, that is, the withdrawal of the military forces and hardware from Georgia and Moldova.

In a simple language this means that unless Russia withdraws from Moldova and Georgia, NATO would consider itself free to increase military presence in the Baltic countries – a scenario dreaded by the Russian generals, and bad for President Vladimir Putin’s public image.

The NATO Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, stated, after the NATO-Russia Council meeting that took place on June 28-29, that the Alliance sees CFE and Istanbul commitments linked “not only politically, but also legally.”

This legal linkage was long refuted by Russian authorities, who see the Istanbul commitments as being made at the margins of the OSCE summit and existing only as political, rather than legally binding statements. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated this point again during the Istanbul conference, but it apparently fell on deaf ears.

This is good news for Georgia. As NATO keeps heat on Russia, it improves Tbilisi’s hand in negotiations with Moscow over the withdrawal of Russian military bases in Georgia. Georgia, which is seeking a way in which it can further its efforts towards Euro-Atlantic integration through new modes of cohabitation with Russia, welcomes the political maneuver.

Pressure from NATO or its western allies may not force Russia to abandon its bases in Georgia. Such pressure generally serves to strengthen the voices of nationalist forces in the Russian parliament and military. Certainly the Kremlin is in control and it may very well choose to lend a sympathetic ear to those voices and “play tough” with Georgia. This is an approach that the Russian Foreign Ministry seems to favor at the moment.

Surely Vladamir Putin is able to override the voices of opposition and reach a compromise acceptable for Georgia, but it is up to the Georgian leadership to decide how it defines “success” in its relations with Russia and what concessions it is willing to make.

President Mikheil Saakashvili has sent signals that he is ready for a compromise. Russia’s Kommersant Daily wrote in its June 28 issue that Russia’s Foreign Minister is expected to be blamed for not fulfilling the Istanbul commitments and, quite paradoxically, Saakashvili could come to the rescue in the Summit lobby. But this will prove difficult, as even Saakashvili is hindered by language employed at the summit.  The Russian press, emulating communiqués sent by NATO, refrains from using the word “withdrawal” of the Russian troops, as is not stated in communiqué that merely urged “a swift resolution of the outstanding issues” between Georgia and Russia and calls “upon the parties to resume negotiations at an appropriately senior level.”

Saakashvili also refrained from making a formal statement at the North Atlantic Partnership Council, a forum in which he could have submitted a request that the Russian presence be withdrawn from Georgia.

Instead, the Georgian press points out, that efforts by the Georgian diplomats at the summit went into including, rather oddly, the phrase “we welcome the commitment of the new Georgian government to reform” at the end of paragraph 31 of the communiqué, which speaks about the “special focus” that NATO strives for in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Final documents of the multilateral gatherings, such as the NATO summit, tend to be somewhat cryptic in their content, influenced by complex bargaining and compromise between the delegates. But this effort by the Georgian delegation to ensure that this odd sentence be included shows that Tbilisi looks towards becoming a frontrunner in the new NATO foreign policy in South Caucasus and prefers a long term approach to the public shaming of Russia.

The strategy seems sound. The same Paragraph that includes the Georgian addition is extremely ambiguous in regards to what the “special focus” of the NATO in the Caucasus and Central Asia means in practical terms. One certain aspect of this focus means the opening of two liaison offices in each region, and Georgia wants to see the office for the Caucasus (interestingly, not South Caucasus) opened in Tbilisi.

The caution used in defining this “special focus” stems from various reasons. First, there seems to be no common compromise in the Alliance regarding its policy in these new priority regions. The Alliance is still undergoing pains of enlargement. The rift in US-European relations heals slowly, and the top priorities: Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, terrorism and Nuclear Non-Proliferation, obscure the Caucasus from the views of the top politicians. Certainly, there is also an opposition from Russia.

Under these circumstances, the Alliance prefers to tread carefully and preferably on a bilateral basis, to devise a mode of cooperation with countries that express their willingness to move closer to the Alliance. The communiqué mentions three such states: Georgia, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. Each of these states has expressed willingness to develop the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) which would pull them closer to the Alliance in military and, more importantly, political terms.

With the approval of the IPAP these states would define their objectives in their dealings with NATO, either through membership or merely close ties, as well as chart the proposed gradual and verifiable course that will be charted towards these aims. Certainly, the NATO diplomats would be relieved to see that these aims, and especially the pace set towards implementing serious changes, does not upset Russia too much.

Hence, the NATO summit gave the Georgian side a strong pillar to lean on in the discussing of the military bases issue with Russia.  But it also planted the initiative for defining its plan for NATO-compatibility and the responsibility for ensuring its political feasibility in Tbilisi, rather than at NATO headquarters.

Along this road, the Georgian government seems to have flopped already: the IPAP plan submitted to NATO was not accepted as a final document by the Alliance experts, and no mention of Georgia’s IPAP proposal was made in the communiqué. The details remain hushed, but sources say it was the political rather than the military-technical aspect of the program that attracted the most criticism. The procurement of financial provisions was also reportedly scrutinized.

The political side of the IPAP plan has to deal with systemic reforms in the Ministry of Defense and the establishment of effective civil oversight.  It is argued by some Georgian defense officials that it will be very difficult to establish a verifiable timetable for the implementation of these reforms. These timetables seem mandatory, however, despite under-carpet confrontations between the various ministries and departments and the inherent suspicion of the uniformed military’s involvement in civil affairs.

Mikheil Saakashvili is scheduled to hold talks with Vladamir Putin in Moscow on July 3.  And while these talks are backed by NATO there still exist way too many unresolved problems and difficult compromises to make it a comfortable flight from Tbilisi to Moscow.

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