Editor’s Note: Joseph Epstein is a prospective Slavic Studies and Political Science major at Columbia University. He is also a journalist formerly based in Tbilisi, Georgia. He has reported for publications including the Daily Beast, Vice News, ADDitude Magazine and the New York Times.
TBILISI – U.S. flags hang from the rafters of bars in Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia. The road to the airport is named George Bush Street, and English has replaced Russian as the most popular second language in schools.
But the pro-western passion in this small former Soviet republic goes even deeper: for more than a decade, Georgia has been lobbying hard to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In a vivid sign of that determination, Georgia played host to U.S. military exercises complete with 200 American paratroopers, five live-fire exercises and IED explosions last May.
“Joining the West is our destiny,” says former Defense Minister Vasil Sikharulidze. “If we want a liberal democracy based on rule of law, human rights, and a free economy … we have no other choice but to join NATO.”
Georgia, of course, has an even keener motive to warm to the West: officials here hope that NATO membership will help protect it from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression.
This nation of nearly 5 million gained independence from Russia in 1991, but relations with its powerful neighbour remain tense.
Article five of the NATO alliance states that an attack on any member will be considered an attack on the pact as a whole, and many Georgians see that as the only way to secure their sovereignty.
Russian troops invaded Georgia just seven years ago, occupying two separatist territories and displacing more than 200,000 people. Moscow’s recent annexation of the Crimea last year revived fears here that Putin’s land grabs will continue, and that no former Soviet bloc member may be safe. These fears materialized when on July, 10, Russian-backed separatists in the South Ossetia region moved the de-facto borderline, placing more Georgian territory under their control. The Georgian government denounced the land grab but did not take any military action deterred by the memory of the last armed operation taken in South Ossetia, which spurred a Russian invasion.
Moscow received virtually no international condemnation for its 2008 invasion of Georgia, which was used by Russian policymakers as a precedent when considering what steps to take in Ukraine.
In his confirmation hearing, US Ambassador to Georgia, Ian Kelly, stressed the importance of giving more support to Georgia.
“An important principle is at stake here – the right of all sovereign nations to choose their own alliances and association,” said Kelly.
The main opposition to Georgia’s entry into NATO comes from Germany and France, which fear provoking Russia. They oppose Tbilisi’s bid overlooking the success of other former-Soviet, NATO members such as the Baltic States and the Visegrád group.
This is precisely why the Obama Administration should step up its support for Georgia’s ties to the west.
“Not irritating Russia is just playing their game, that is what they are counting on, that ‘we will bully, and the West will stop’ and then they have a free hand to do whatever they want,” said the co-founder of the political watchdog GRASS, Helen Khoshtaria.
Another obstacle for Georgia is its obscurity to most Americans, many of whom confuse it with the Peach State. Yet that appears to be changing as more American tourists are discovering a fascinating country that considers itself the birthplace of wine.
Strategically, Georgia is hardly insignificant. It is a transit hub for Central Asian energy exports, a European balcony to the Middle East and the largest contributor of non-NATO troops to the coalition forces in Afghanistan.
“What Russia is against isn’t our NATO membership, but any guarantee that would secure Georgian sovereignty,” said Khoshtaria. “Anything that weakens their influence over Georgia is unacceptable to them.”
If NATO continues to put off Georgia’s membership, it will send a message to Ukraine, Moldova and all other CIS states with aspirations to wriggle their way out of Russia’s grasp. Georgia gives Americans a chance to defend the principle of democracy and send a message to Putin that the days of Russian imperialism are over.