This is a commentary prepared by the political editor of commonspace.eu
Two symbolic yet also significant steps during the course of the last days have taken Georgia closer to achieving its aspirations for integration in the European and Euro-Atlantic community.
On Monday, the Committee for Civil liberties, Justice and Home Affairs of the European Parliament overwhelmingly voted in favour of a resolution to recommend that Georgians wanting to travel to EU Schengen countries for tourism or business purposes can do so without the need for a visa. It was one of the last procedures necessary for this measure to be finally adopted. The Committee's recommendation will now go to a full plenary of the parliament. It will then need to be finally endorsed by the joint mechanism, known as the trilateral, involving the Parliament, the European Council (representing the member states) and the European Commission.
For the Georgian people this has been a long journey during which their government implemented extensive work to satisfy EU requirements. In Georgia there were expectations that this measure would be adopted before the summer. There were last minute procrastinations on the European side, by and large related to issues not concerning Georgia at all. However many in Brussels understand that visa liberalisation was promised to Georgia if it fulfilled the necessary criteria, and that now that it has done so not to honour the promise will have serious impact on the EU's credibility. So the archaic Brussels bureaucracy and machinery is now focused on completing this task.
In July, the Association Agreement between Georgia and the EU came fully into force. Georgia stands to benefit from this agreement in different ways, but for many the visa free travel is the symbolic step that Georgians will be able to experience first-hand. That is why the measure became hugely important, and why it is hoped it will come into effect soon.
The second event of this week, less than forty-eight hours later, was the arrival in Georgia of the full North Atlantic Council, headed by NATO's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Their arrival also marked the fact that whilst Georgia is not yet a full NATO member the relationship with the alliance is strong, to the point of being unique. In the summit in Wales in 2012 and in Warsaw Summit earlier this year the alliance indicated that it was willing to entertain Georgia's full membership sometime in the future.
You can read more about Georgia and the Warsaw Summit here.
This is far from being a one-way relationship. Georgia already contributes to many of NATO's most dangerous and difficult missions from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean, with large contingents of troops. It has already shown that it is ready to share the burden that a common defence arrangement, such as NATO requires. Georgia has been knocking on NATO's door for several years. A number of factors, have stood in its way, including, although this is always denied, some hesitation on the part of some NATO allies, due to the fact that they do not want their relations with Russia to deteriorate further. However NATO is clear that Russia has no veto on the alliance's further expansion. This was reaffirmed again this week in Tbilisi. Speaking in a joint press conference with the Georgian Prime Minister, Stoltenberg, replying to a question from the Reuters correspondent said,
"For NATO it is a fundamental principle that every nation has the right to decide its own path including, what kind of security arrangements or military alliance it wants to be part of. And this not the only principle that NATO has subscribed to but it's actually a principle that also Russia and all other European nations have subscribed to many many times starting with the Helsinki Final Act back in the 1970s and then repeatedly done so in different international treaties. So for every sovereign nation, for every independent nation as Georgia it is a fundamental right to choose whether it wants to be a member of the Alliance or whether it does not want to be a member of the Alliance.
That's the independent decision of an independent nation. So whether Georgia is going to become member of NATO or not is up to NATO, the 28 allies and Georgia to decide, nobody else has the right to interfere or try to veto or try to intervene in that process. And this has been underlined by NATO again and again and NATO's door remains open and that has been shown many, many, times despite protests, despite expressions from Russia that they dislike the enlargement of NATO; NATO has continued to enlarge."
Many observers now feel that, as long as Georgia continues on its path of reform and democratisation, NATO membership is only a question of time. As Prime Minister Kvirikashvili remarked, "We believe that there will be a window of opportunity for Georgia but we need to be patient and we need to be consistent."
You can watch the proceedings of the press conference in Tbilisi on 7 September here
Good for Georgia, good for its neighbourhood
The steady progress that Georgia is making in realising its European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations is good for Georgia and reflects the will of its people. It is however also good for its neighbourhood. Everybody recognises that Georgia's Caucasus neighbourhood is difficult and complicated. Not only because the region has been over centuries an area of interest and competition between its three larger neighbours, Russia, Iran and Turkey, but also because the two immediate neighbours of Georgia in the South Caucasus - Armenia and Azerbaijan, are locked in a seemingly unresolvable conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, and technically remain at war with each other. Ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis also constitute sizable minorities within Georgia itself.
Georgia maintains exemplary relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan. Over the years successive Georgian leaders have made huge efforts to maintain friendly relations with both countries, also pursuing mutually beneficial co-operation, but stopping short of alienating one or the other. Indeed, the last week also saw Georgia's Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili visiting both Baku and Yerevan and meeting the Presidents of both countries.
Speaking in Baku on 31 August Kvirikashvili said "We spare no effort to support reinforcement of our neighbourly relations that have truly strategic character. We share friendship, and regional and global projects that are crucial for the well-being of our nations and further reinforcement of our friendship".
Five days later, in Yerevan Kvirikashvili noted that Armenia's relations with Georgia date back hundreds of years and added that the Georgian people and Government attach the utmost importance to the development of these relations. According to Kvirikashvili, the existing mutual understanding between the two Governments as well as the dynamics of recent years and active trade and economic relations form an excellent base for the further strengthening of relations and developing the huge potential which they offer. The Georgian Prime Minister said that strong friendly relations between Armenia and Georgia are important not only for Georgia and Armenia but also for stability in the South Caucasus.
Georgian-Azerbaijani and Georgian-Armenian relations have developed and consolidated over the last two decades and now form the backbone for regional co-operation. As is to be expected there are also issues that unless well managed can spoil these relationships and all sides need to be careful how to manage them. Georgia has a role to play to improve relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan and it must not shy away from doing so whenever the opportunity arises. For both Armenia and Azerbaijan a strong, stable and prosperous Georgia is essential for their own prosperity and stability. Closer relations between Georgia and the EU and NATO are therefore also important for the whole region.
Armenia is a member of the Russia led Collective Security Treaty organisation (CSTO) whilst Azerbaijan declares itself non-aligned and is a member of the Non Aligned Movement and the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (IOC). Georgia has made it clear through its words and its actions that its closer co-operation with NATO and the EU is a threat to neither country, and in fact can offer important opportunities to both.
Georgia's reform agenda - not necessarily a model, but most certainly a beacon
In the process of realising its European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations Georgia has implemented an impressive package of reforms in all aspects of governance. The progress is impressive, and one hopes, will be sealed with a well organised and truly democratic election process in the coming weeks.
No two countries are the same, and it is wrong to try to cut and paste Georgia's experience of reform and democratisation to other countries in the neighbourhood. Yet the fact that Georgia is a beacon for others in undeniable. Armenians and Azerbaijanis travel to Georgia often, for business or leisure. They are able to experience the changes in the country nearly as well as the Georgians themselves. They see the pluralistic political landscape, the diverse media, the dynamic ngo sector, and are able to draw their own conclusions. There are also a large number of Georgians of Armenian and Azerbaijani ethnicity living in Georgia and they are a living bond between Georgia and its neighbours. Georgia's success therefore inspires, but in a subtle way, so neither Baku nor Yerevan actually feel threatened by it.
Russia's paranoia is unjustified
The same cannot be said of Russia, Unfortunately, Russia continues to see Georgia's progress towards EU and NATO as a threat. This perception is wrong and unjustified. Georgia's western orientation is not part of some evil plan to encircle Russia, as is sometimes suggested. Apart from the fact that a country the size of Russia is very difficult to encircle, it is Russia itself, through its actions, that has caused many of its smaller neighbours to seek security in bigger alliances with similarly minded countries.
A stable peaceful and prosperous Georgia is good for Russia too, regardless of whether it is a NATO member or not. On the contrary, an impoverished, unstable and failed Georgian state would be a much bigger danger for Russia - especially in the North Caucasus. Georgia can also be a beacon for its neighbours here too. In the North Caucasus Russia's problems continue to fester, even if under the surface. Russia should stop thinking of Georgia as a buffer zone and instead realise that its modernisation as part of its journey to EU and NATO is helping uplift the region from poverty and isolation. Rather than trying to undermine Georgia, Russia should seek to work with it as a force for good in the Caucasus. This may be something too hard to swallow for the current imperial minded Kremlin, but is not beyond the imagination of progressive Russians.
Patience and Consistency
The Georgian Prime Minister was right in highlighting the need for patience and consistency when addressing the joint press Conference with the Secretary General of NATO. They are indeed attributes that are necessary as Georgia manages the difficult political terrain of its region. Georgia's diligence has already started to pay off, and will do even more so in the future. This will be good not only for Georgia but for the entire neighbourhood.
This commentary was prepared by the political editor of commonspace.eu
Download this report here in PDF
European Commissioner Johannes Hahn held discussions with officials from the South Caucasus on the margins of the Munich Security Conference