On December 2, NATO Foreign Ministers approved an updated Substantial NATO-Georgia Package (SNGP). What are new components to be added to this tool enabled since 2014 and aimed to integrate Georgia into the Alliance; when should Georgia expect a Membership Action Plan, and what NATO representatives think about opening a military base in Georgia? Georgian Public Broadcaster spoke with James Appathurai, NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs and Security Policy and NATO Secretary General’s Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia.
First of all, our question refers to the recently approved Substantial NATO-Georgia Package. What additional components will be added to this package?
We are quite happy and I know that the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia, David Zalkaliani, is happy as well with the refreshed package. New elements are really substantial. Basically, for those who do not know what an old package had, it had a number of elements and we put it together since 2014. The basic aims were to enhance Georgia’s interoperability, the ability to work with NATO which helps to prepare for NATO membership. Also, the essential package helps to enhance Georgia’s ability to defend itself, be resilient against cyber-attacks and other kinds of attacks. All of these help Georgia in its preparation for membership in NATO. We endorsed this new package a few days ago, at the Foreign Ministerial level. It very much goes in the same direction. But to coming directly to your question, there are 16 initiatives in a new package. Three of them are totally new. One of them is, indeed, as Germany mentioned to help Georgia in developing a deployable movable military medical capability. I don’t mean only outside Georgia, so within Georgia. It should help Georgians inside the country, but also to contribute to international operations. The second is to improve Georgia’s English language training capability. It’s obviously principally for security. English is the international language in military operations and diplomacy. It really helps Georgia to become more effective, when it wants to operate. And then the third, it’s got a new element which is to help Georgia as it develops its own projects, for example, capability projects, to help them match with the NATO projects. So, again, it is about more effectiveness and connectivity with NATO. But, there are 13 other initiatives, where we are strengthening what we did before. For example, more support for the NATO-Georgia Joint Training and Evaluation Center, more support to the Defense Institution Building School, better contribution when it comes to secure communication. So, there is a long list that started in 2014, and now we are doing more. It’s really substantial and we are very happy about it.
Now let’s move to the NATO expert group report NATO 2030. This report says that the open-door policy should be upheld. Does it mean that there are ongoing discussions on providing MAP or other instruments for Georgia?
I am actually quite confident that the open-door policy will be upheld. We have just taken in new members, as you know, in the past couple of years. But it’s also a case that in every NATO statement, every NATO communiqué, the Allies reiterate their commitment to the open door as a principle. To the reason why, which is because, in our experience, it helps the country joining, it helps European security, it helps NATO, and they specifically mentioned the Bucharest Summit decisions with regard to Georgia and subsequent decisions where we say that Georgia will become a member of NATO. It would be easy just not to say it but they do say it because they mean it and they want to keep making the point that the open-door really does remain open. I am actually quite confident that this recommendation from the reflection group is one that we can take on board. I really do see a consensus on that here. The next question you posed is when MAP will be, but I do not know the answer to this question. We have discussed that so many times over the years. I can tell you two things, one is there is really an active discussion here about the open door and it is not just a statement we come to every three months. How do we take it forward; how do we make it real; how do we help our partners? That’s something that we are going to energize again in the coming months. I think that the upcoming NATO summit, we haven’t decided on it, but it is always the case when the American President comes in, we have a summit. I’m reasonably sure that open-door will be one of the things that get discussed in the development of the Communiqué. Open-door, what do we mean and how we make it more substantial and the second part is what you and I just discussed, which is how do we help aspirant countries get better prepared for NATO membership. What I always say when discussing this with my Georgian, and to be honest with my Ukrainian friends, I always say that MAP is a political step, because Georgia already has all the practical tools to prepare for membership. It has the Annual National Program, a NATO-Georgia Commission, and a Substantial Package. We have everything we need to help Georgia prepare for membership. So, from my point of view, I do not know when politics will be right for the Membership Action Plan and every government has done it, every side of the political spectrum they are on, what we can do is to help Georgia prepare, so, when the time comes politically, there are not practical obstacles for Georgia to join and, by the way, no practical reasons why hesitant countries would say it is not ready for MAP. Let’s clear all of those and then when the politics are right, and this will help the politics to be right, MAP will come along. It’s a bit of a long answer, but this is the way I see it.
Foreign experts suggest that NATO maybe should engage more actively in the Caucasus region in the light of the recent developments in Nagorno-Karabakh. In an interview with Georgian Public Broadcaster, Ben Hodges, the former commander of US forces in Europe, said that NATO should open a military base in Georgia. Is it possible?
It is an interesting idea. You know that we already a substantial presence including much military personnel in Georgia, at the NATO-Georgia Joint Training and Evaluation Center, the School of Defense Institution Building, and we also because we have annual NATO-Georgia exercises. We have NATO’s civilian office, as well as a military Office in Georgia. Many Allies have military personnel in Georgia as well. So, I think Georgians can be confident that there is already a lot of NATO in Georgia. We always work, and the Substantial Package will help that – to do more. As to whether or not a base is a good idea, it’s not been discussed here now, that’s for sure. I’m not a hundred percent sure what substantial difference it would make, to be honest. We do not have NATO bases in partner countries. We have NATO bases in NATO countries. What NATO has in Georgia is unprecedented – NATO facilities, branded or co-branded NATO and Georgia, with NATO personnel on an enduring base, that pretty much doesn’t exist anywhere else. So, Georgia is quite well advanced in terms of how much NATO is present. Is it on the horizon? I don’t expect that. Is it in NATO tradition to have bases outside of NATO? I don’t see that, but actually, I think that Georgia already has an unprecedented amount of NATO in Georgia and we are working to do more.
Former NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow said in an interview with Georgian Public Broadcaster that NATO should consider granting Georgia the status of an associate member. This status does not exist, but what are the options?
That’s an interesting concept that I have not heard before. You are absolutely right there is no such status now. I have no idea what that would mean. I will just give you my initial reaction, but this is just me talking. For me, we really have to define what benefits the country would get from it and what risks would come with it. Either you are a member or you are not. If you are not a member, it does not get you the security guarantees that NATO membership brings. I will give you an example. We have extremely close relations with Sweden. It’s right to our next door. Because of EU membership, we have very close relations, but also because in a Baltic area NATO defense is very much integrated with Sweden and Finland, and the Swedes know it. They exercise with us. We have agreements for mutual use of airfields and ports, we have high-level political engagement, so we are extremely close and the former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, went up to Sweden, then he was asked by a journalist– because of this deep level of interaction would NATO automatically come to defend us, if we were attacked? And his answer was in the very Nordic way. No. No, because you are a member or you are not. I think we should not introduce too much ambiguity in things, give people the wrong idea. So, that’s my initial reaction to this. I think very carefully before going down this route. What matters – an aspirant country and a member, before membership gets no security guarantees. After membership, there are security guarantees, but in the interim, we can expand the NATO presence in Georgia to make it clear, and that’s what we are doing, that Georgia’s security matters for us, we are committed to Georgia, that an attack on Georgia with all of our people there has implications. That’s, I think that we have gone and the way we are likely to continue to go.
The next question is about security guarantees. Is there a possibility for Georgia to join NATO if its territories remain occupied by Russia, or de-occupation is needed first?
That’s one of the fundamental questions. I think we all recognize that is one of the reasons why Russia has forces in Georgia, but also in many other countries along its periphery is an attempt to make them un-adjustable to international organizations EU and NATO because they have an ongoing conflict or territorial dispute and therefore it will become too difficult. I can’t predict what decisions will the allies take on any issues, but what I can say is the allies have reiterated that Georgia will become a NATO member, based on a Bucharest Summit decisions, even after the 2008 war and ever since Georgia has had Russian troops on its two territories. I’m confident that’s they have not backed away from this commitment, despite this very unfortunate situation, but what the ultimate resolution all of this would be, we can have many discussions on that.
Finally, I would like to ask you about the political developments in Georgia. Namely the boycott of parliament by the opposition. Would that affect Georgia’s NATO integration process?
I know that the United States and the European Union were very active in Georgia talking to the opposition and the government. What we have said to the leadership in Georgia is that we would like to see the diminishment of polarization in the Georgian political spectrum. Some NATO countries also have very divided political systems and that is not news to anyone. But having a functioning government including the sitting and active opposition is the essence of how the governments in NATO countries operate. We do not have parliaments boycotted by oppositions so the polarization in Georgia is first and foremost a problem for Georgia. But the whole international community would like to see it to be diminished between the opposition and the government as soon as possible. We know that Georgia is also facing a significant health crisis. I know that Georgia is not at the top when it comes to managing this situation. Certainly in my country, Canada the fact that the government and opposition argue a little bit, but when it comes to basic health issues, it’s really important that they are generally working in the same direction. Now as much as ever, that would benefit every country, including Georgia.