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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Georgia Draws Gains, Not Lessons, From War

ReutersPeople waving Georgian flags during a gathering Thursday in central Gori, some 80 kilometers west of Tbilisi.

Exactly one year after the war over South Ossetia, Georgia’s chances of becoming a NATO member have been reduced to almost zero, but the South Caucasus nation might actually be safer and is putting greater hopes into political integration with the West.

Despite the fact that key European powers continue to be skeptical because Tbilisi’s standoff with Moscow remains fundamentally unsolved, President Mikheil Saakashvili is promoting his country as a regional champion.

“Georgia has rebounded. Our democratic institutions are growing. Foreign investors are returning. The world should recognize that the kind of behavior Russia exhibited last August threatens not only Georgia but our entire region,” Saakashvili wrote Thursday in The Washington Post.

The argument for bringing Georgia into the Western defense alliance has become stronger not weaker, Giorgy Kandelaki, deputy chairman of the Georgian parliament’s foreign affairs committee and a close ally of Saakashvili, told The Moscow Times in an interview this week.

“If anyone in Europe had any illusions that they stood to gain something by preventing Georgia’s integration into NATO, the war has done away with them,” he said by telephone from Tbilisi. “Appeasement has never worked.”

Yet it is clear that the war has only strengthened the resolve of European NATO members, first and foremost France and Germany, which opposed Georgia’s accession at the alliance’s Bucharest summit in April 2008.

“Of course, NATO remains principally open to new members, but any expansion must enhance existing members’ security. I don’t see Georgia meeting this condition any time soon,” said Andreas Schockenhoff, a member of the German Bundestag’s Foreign Policy Committee from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.

Schockenhoff said “cooperative relations with neighbor states” was among the political preconditions set for Tbilisi’s NATO hopes.

Most observers agree that Georgia’s chances for joining the alliance are now virtually nonexistent, and in private, many NATO governments blame Saakashvili for adventurism last August.

When U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visited Tbilisi last month, he naturally stressed that the reset of U.S.-Russia relations would not come at Georgia’s expense, but he refrained from promises on military assistance or the country’s NATO bid.

Rather, he told his hosts that retaking their lost territories by force was not an option.

“There is no military option to reintegration, only [a] peaceful and prosperous Georgia. … Showing those in Abkhazia and South Ossetia a Georgia where they can be free and their communities can flourish” is the way to restore territorial integrity, Biden said in a speech to the Georgian parliament.

Saakashvili echoed the argument Thursday, writing in The Washington Post that “a free and prosperous Georgia ultimately will restore our sovereignty and reverse the wrongs caused by Russia’s invasion.”

Kandelaki admitted that “things have changed” in Western perceptions of his country but insisted that Tbilisi’s arguments remained just as relevant. “The foreign policy instinct of the Russian leadership has not changed,” he said.

Likewise, he argued, Georgia remains a coveted partner for Western powers. “Georgia remains a visible example of reform in the region,” he said, pointing to his country’s success in fighting corruption.

As examples, he cited a charter on strategic partnership with the United States, signed in Washington in January, and his country’s accession to the European Union’s Eastern Partnership program in May.

Biden’s visit to Tbilisi confirmed that Washington was fully supportive of Georgia, Kandelaki said.

He added that the government hoped to sign an association agreement and a free trade agreement with the EU soon.

Ghia Nodia, a political science professor at Tbilisi University, said the NATO impasse might act as a catalyst for the country’s relations with Europe.

“Those European powers who opposed Georgia’s NATO membership may have feelings of guilt and propose closer cooperation with the EU,” he said by telephone from Tbilisi.

Yet Schockenhoff, the German lawmaker, dampened those hopes, saying political and economic reforms had suffered setbacks since the war.

“Georgia cannot expect the European Union to export reforms — they need to be imposed by the country’s leadership,” he said.

The course of this summer’s opposition protests in Tbilisi showed that regardless of the resentment that may remain over the Georgian government in Europe, to say nothing of Russia, Saakashvili will not be going away any time soon.

Saakashvili’s government might no longer have the high standing he enjoyed in 2004, when he was swept to power after the so-called Rose Revolution, but he’s far from faltering, Nodia said.

“The opposition … was exposed as weak during the protests,” he said.

Protests held in the Georgian capital since April fizzled out last month, although leaders said they were just being suspended until the fall.

Asked why Saakashvili remained unchallenged in power, despite the war’s disastrous results, Nodia said nobody in Georgia expected “to win a war against Russia.” And unlike many Europeans, “people here do not blame Saakashvili for starting the war,” he said.

Chances for rapprochement with Moscow are close to zero as long as Saakashvili, whom the Kremlin has branded a war criminal, remains in office. But officials in Tbilisi are shrugging their shoulders, saying the war just exposed Russia’s true intentions.

“If Nelson Mandela were president of Georgia, Russia would still manage to demonize him,” Kandelaki said.

Georgia hasn’t suffered a worsening in relations with other former Soviet republics, he said, despite its decision to leave the Commonwealth of Independent States, the loose successor organization to the Soviet Union.

“We have excellent relations with all CIS countries except one,” he said, adding that the commonwealth was a “phantom” that has totally ceased functioning. “It used to be a paper tiger, and now it’s just a piece of paper,” he said.

He argued that Tbilisi’s alienation from Moscow was even positive. “Russia can no longer claim the role of peacekeeper or honest broker,” Kandelaki said.

And Nodia agreed that having a clearer demarcation between Georgia and Russia might be positive for a more stable security architecture.

“There is less pretext now for Russia to attack Georgia,” he said.