Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili’s recent visit to Brussels to meet with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg comes at a challenging time for the Alliance, and in particular for Georgia.
With a troubled presidential transition in the US, a recidivist and ever-aggressive Russia and a potential global downturn unlike any the modern world has ever known, it’s clear that from a security perspective there are difficult challenges ahead.
Behind the headlines, the relationship between NATO and the Georgian government has been growing stronger for some time.
NATO Secretaries-General past and present have described Georgia as one of the Alliance’s ‘closest partners’ - no surprise given that Georgia is the largest per capita contributor to NATO missions in Afghanistan, and is NATO’s key strategic partner in the Black Sea region.
NATO leadership, as well as European and US governments, have issued strong support for Georgian citizens living under illegal Russian occupation in Tskhinvali and Abkhazia.
Georgian institutions - including scientific research facilities, government ministries, and media - are regularly subject to sophisticated cyberattacks from Russia. Several EU countries, most notably the Baltic states, have experience similar cyber-aggression.
"The coming few years will be fascinating to watch for Georgia-EU relations. The newly-re-elected governing Georgian Dream party has stated its desire not only to apply for NATO membership in 2024, but also to apply for EU membership at the same time"
That is one of many shared security challenges where American and European intelligence services work alongside their Georgian counterparts to combat future attacks and learn more about Russia’s cyber-warfare programmes.
The coming few years will be fascinating to watch for Georgia-EU relations. The newly-re-elected governing Georgian Dream party has stated its desire not only to apply for NATO membership in 2024, but also to apply for EU membership at the same time.
The short timeline is a clear signal that the government is keen to move quickly on those two goals.
Georgian Dream, in power since 2012, has made no secret of its desire to join the EU: its leader Bidzina Ivanishvili - a self-made billionaire industrialist who briefly served as Prime Minister - has said so publicly.
Ivanishvili surprised Georgians in January by announcing that he was stepping down from all positions of political responsibility, and will focus on his philanthropic work instead, personally funding over $1.5bn of cultural and educational projects across Georgia.
This news is remarkable for many reasons, most notably because Ivanishvili - unlike his fellow billionaire Donald Trump - is voluntarily leaving office and handing over the reins of power to a new generation of Georgians, trusting that they will continue to pursue his vision of a Western, European future for the country.
"It is the now the responsibility of the EU to consider how it will respond. Enlargement is a sensitive issue at the moment and there will be some who oppose Georgia’s inclusion into the club. Others will advocate that membership should be offered, given the country’s strategic location on the Black Sea and its pro-European culture"
His reasoning is sound: namely, that a vibrant democracy requires regular changes in leadership in order to stay healthy. It is a simple creed but one from which democracies young and old, on every continent, can learn from.
Ivanishvil has also expressed hope that in the future his party will lose an election and return to a constructive role in opposition: another important constitutional principle that unfortunately many emerging democracies fail to honour - ‘President for life’ is an enticing job title, it seems.
If Georgia is determined to submit these membership applications, the focus on economic and democratic reform must continue. The World Bank recently praised Georgia as a ‘star reformer’ as a result of ‘deep reforms in economic management’ that have triggered robust economic growth.
This is a promising sign; the question however, is whether Brussels and Washington can be persuaded to endorse Georgia’s candidacy in such a short space of time, ahead of 2024. Antony Blinken, the new Secretary of State appointed by President Joe Biden, said last week that he was open to the possibility.
It is the now the responsibility of the EU to consider how it will respond. Enlargement is a sensitive issue at the moment and there will be some who oppose Georgia’s inclusion into the club.
Others will advocate that membership should be offered, given the country’s strategic location on the Black Sea and its pro-European culture.
The central and eastern European nations who joined in 2004, 2007, and 2013 know better than anyone that this is not a fast process, nor a simple one. The new government in Tbilisi has made a good start.
They will know that there is a lot of work ahead, if they wish to achieve their objectives.