Issue 4, 2014. August-September


GEORGIA: PREPARING FOR NATO'S "SUBSTANTIVE PACKAGE" IN WALES republishes Monica Ellena's interview with Minister of Defense Irakli Alasania about the up-coming NATO Summit in Wales, slated for September. The article originally appeared in Business New Europe magazine's August edition.

Monica Ellena

Irakli Alasania does not like war. Like most Georgians of his generation, the energetic 40-year old Minister of Defence has lived through enough of it.

But he knows that Georgia's strategic position, at the crossroads between East and West, means that the country needs to be prepared, skilled, and equipped to defend itself if necessary.

As the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is gearing up for its next summit in Wales in early September, Georgia has shifted its focus from the improbable goal of securing MAP -the Membership Action Plan, the last step before full membership - to what the summit will bring to Tbilisi. In late June, NATO foreign ministers decided to offer Georgia, as Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen put it, a "substantive package" to help the country "come closer" to NATO. In early July, NATO's special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, James Appathurai, held talks with the Georgian leadership to define what that means.

"This summit will not talk about enlargement, but clearly will talk about the open door policy," says Alasania in an interview with BNE in his office in downtown Tbilisi. "What I expect is the validation of Georgia's achievements. Georgia is becoming a role model to follow in the region. We are a country that reforms, that matures its political system, and that contributes to Euro-Atlantic security."

Alasania aims to increase Georgia's interoperability with NATO and to beef up the country's self-defense capabilities, such as air-defense, anti-mobile, and anti-tank capabilities."

"Georgia is today a credible partner." he adds. "So I expect two baskets (from the summit): a political declaration clearly identifying Georgia's progress and stating the next stage for integration into the alliance, and a concrete package increasing NATO's imprint and presence on Georgian soil."

Opportunities, past and future

Georgia's long quest for NATO membership started with the meltdown of the Soviet Union. The 1990s opened a window of opportunity for Tbilisi to reach out to the world beyond the former Iron Curtain. But Georgia failed to take it. "Instead of consolidating ourselves, like the Baltic states, we started shooting each other," Alasania recalls. "It was a great mistake. Back then we showed Georgia's immaturity to handle the state and state relations."

As a result, Georgia endured civil wars, the loss of 20 percent of its territory, and a quarter of a million internally displaced persons. Nevertheless, full EU and NATO membership became the foreign policy pillar of the Western-minded leadership of the Rose Revolution, which took power in 2003. Despite making rapid progress on several fronts, Georgia missed out on MAP at the Bucharest summit in April 2008. The subsequent war with Russia over one of Georgia's breakaway regions, South Ossetia, in August 2008 put NATO membership for Georgia off the table. But the idea was revived a couple of years later at the summit in Lisbon.

"Historic opportunities are opening up for Georgia again. That's why we are acting like NATO country members: to prepare ourselves for this window of opportunity. When it is next open, we'll be ready."

Reform, train, and equip

Since his appointment in 2012, Alasania has initiated deep structural reforms in the Ministry of Defense focused on transparency, accountability, and training. He raised soldiers and officials' salaries, conditions and benefits, abolished mandatory conscription, and increased civilian oversight and control, both at the parliamentary and NGO level.

"I personally have to report every purchase above GEL 2 million (EUR 415,000) and explain where this money goes. The procurement system is totally transparent, with electronic tenders, so that everyone can see what we are buying, unless it is very secretive, and even then the purchase is scrutinized by a parliamentary special committee," Alasania explains. "The Defense Ministry was the most secretive institution in Georgia, now it is one of the most transparent."

The process hasn't gone unnoticed in Brussels as a NATO assessment advised the MoD to put together a team of institution building to share the experience with other countries.

"We are now exporting our reforms," he adds.

Georgian troops have also built up their combat experience. In 1999 Georgia joined the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. Later, it sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, where, by May 2013, Georgia had 1,560 troops - the largest per-capita troop contributor and largest non-Nato force in the country. It has also suffered a high number of casualties - 29 soldiers - as its troops are deployed in the unstable Helmand province.

"It is a huge number for a small nation," admits the Minister. "We think people understand that this is the price to keep Georgia's independence- there is a lot of support for the army: it is the most trusted state institution in the country after the church."

Moreover, Georgian troops are currently being deployed in the EU-led mission with French command in the African Central Republic. As a result, Georgia today boasts some 12,000 soldiers whom Alasania claims have been trained to the highest NATO and US standards.

"This exposure fundamentally changed the perception and thinking of the Georgian military. The officers that went through Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo know exactly how to conduct modern combat operations. Plus, 90 percent of my top military leadership has gone through US, France, and Germany's army colleges, so they know how to plan modern warfare. So this is transformational."

Georgia is also looking forward to turning its training facilities into NATO training facilities. In fact, Georgia's forces have so impressed Western officials that its troops have been certified to join the NATO response force—the alliance's 25,000-strong rapid reaction unit—in 2015 through to 2017.

"On a military level, we are already a NATO member," Alasania adds.

But there is still a lot to do. Developing robust capabilities in terms of command and control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and logistics takes time, practice and money. Michael Cecire, Associate Scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, highlights that "conscription won't be phased out for another few years, the reserves system is still in the earlier stages of being reformed, and increased civilian control is a reality but barely institutionalized."

It is a long-term process Alasania is aware of. "Many things have to be strengthened, mainly logistical chains, which is one of the priorities alongside infrastructure and military education."

The Russian factor

But the biggest unknown is Russia. Moscow strongly opposes closer ties between Tbilisi and the Alliance, let alone full membership, and it has turned its relationship with the Northern Alliance into a battle of wills.

"The path towards full integration with NATO is irreversible, this is the choice of the Georgian people," stresses Alasania. "But we are defusing tension with Russia: our foreign policy is to eventually normalize relations with the Russian Federation. We know it will not be possible until Russia starts to fulfill the six-point agreement signed after the 2008 war. For now, we opened up channels of negotiations with trade and culture, so we are not giving them any pretext, at all, to destabilize the country."

If the 2008 war was not enough, the annexation of Crimea and the violence in Eastern Ukraine are dire reminder of the potential threat that Russia still poses for Georgia.

"Georgia's connection with the NATO defense system is, hence, very relevant," Alasania concludes.