A Risky Proposition? Interview with Anders Fogh Rasmussen

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former NATO Secretary General (August 2009 to October 2014) says Georgia may consider – temporarily – removing Article 5 protection from its occupied regions, to fast-track NATO accession. “There’s clearly a risk”, Rasmussen told us, that Russia may try to preempt accession by renewed aggression, but he thinks it is a risk worth weighing against the alternatives. Former NATO Secretary General also insists such decision requires national consensus in Georgia, and today’s reactions have surely proven him right.

His speech at the Conference courted controversy in the Georgian media. Reacting to initial, inaccurate reports that Rasmussen proposed joining NATO “without Abkhazia and South Ossetia” the majority leader from the Georgian Dream, Giorgi Volski retorted, that joining any organization without occupied territories is “going against history and against the state.”

Mr. Rasmussen is visiting Georgia to take part in McCain Institute/EPRC 5th Annual Tbilisi International Conference. Vazha Tavberidze spoke to him on Civil.ge’s behalf on the margins of this meeting, to clarify his proposal and to challenge him on potential risks.

We thank the Georgian Institute for Security Policy – (GISP) – for facilitating the interview.

Vazha Tavberidze/Civil.ge:  The name of this conference is “Now What?” and let me ask you the same question with regards to Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations –  What happens now? Where do we stand?

Anders Fogh Rasmussen: I would say that the next step should be that the Georgian government and the Georgian people decide whether it would be acceptable for Georgia to join NATO without letting Article 5 cover the de facto occupied territories; so that only the territory [now] controlled by the Georgian government is covered by Article 5.

Now it may seem complicated to some but we actually do have, in the history of NATO, a precedent: namely, Eastern Germany that was not allowed to enter NATO in 1955 when West Germany did become a member of NATO; so Eastern Germany was not covered by Article 5, until after the German reunification in 1990- 1991. Exactly the same could be done for Georgia, while waiting for a future reunification of Georgia with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

I think, it may be a very controversial question in Georgia. I think you have to take that decision first and then to go to NATO and say – “OK, we are ready, what’s next?”

Q: What do you think will be NATO’s response? Do your former colleagues at NATO share this approach?

A: Not necessarily right now. I cannot guarantee the consensus today, but I think this is the first step in the process; then [if the Georgian proposal to this end is made] NATO allies would have to start a more realistic discussion whether they will accept Georgia as a member, because the fact is that Georgia fulfills the necessary criteria to become a NATO member. Georgia is one of the closest partners of NATO; you have contributed greatly to our mission in Afghanistan and your military lives up to standards.

Q: Would that kind of proposal alleviate the skepticism certain countries have regarding our membership?

A: Not necessarily right now, but I think it will be necessary to take that step to restart the process, so to speak. It’s too easy now to avoid the discussion on the Georgian membership because the skeptics can just point to the unsolved problems. But if Georgia gets to solve that problem, then of course NATO allies will have to discuss and face the reality that Georgia fulfills all necessary criteria.

Q: You mentioned the German example. Pardon my skepticism, but do you honestly believe that Georgia has the same geopolitical worth for the proverbial West as East Germany used to have back then?

A: Germany is indeed a much bigger country, it is located in the center of Europe and of course, it makes a difference. That, of course, plays a role. However, Georgia is also located in a strategically very important spot, the gateway between Europe and Central Asia. Have a look at for instance the energy pipelines, then you will realize how important Georgia is from a strategic point of view and that’s of course also why Russia is so interested in what’s going on in Georgia.

Apart from those hard facts about the strategic importance of Georgia, I also think from a democratic and moral point of view, we need to ensure the success of liberty and free choices of sovereign countries. And to that end we also need to take on board Georgia, Ukraine and other front-line states; so it’s a question about hard security interests, strategic importance but also in the soft end of the scale it’s a question about promotion of freedom and democracy.

Q: Let’s talk about possible repercussions from Kremlin’s side as well. Provided Georgia and NATO go forward with this plan and Russia decides to preempt, to “pull a Crimea”, so to speak, on South Ossetia, what happens then?

A: Yeah, but that’s a risk [you have to take]. That’s clearly a risk. The question is, however, whether that risk is higher or lower if you don’t do anything. So far, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are de facto occupied by Russia and Georgia is subject to a lot of Russian attempts to influence the developments here. Is it more, or is it less risky to take that step [of proposing NATO entry without Art.5 protection for the two regions]? It’s not for me to answer that question, I think Georgia must discuss that and then take a decision.

Q: If you look back at Bucharest Summit in 2008, the time that Kremlin had before the decision was taken to give Georgia MAP, was used by the Kremlin to invade; there’s a dilemma now – let’s say Georgia is ready to go with the proposal you’ve outlined, but the NATO partners need some sort of lengthy internal negotiation period, how do you curtail the risk of Russia using the same tactics as it did in 2008?

A: When I argued in an earlier interview with you that the lack of MAP by 2008 might have tempted Putin to attack Georgia, it is because that decision sent a wrong, rather dangerous signal to the Kremlin – a signal that hinted on NATO hesitation, the lack of decisiveness, lack of determination to actually move forward and protect our Eastern neighbors. So he attacked because he thought: “Well, I can do that without any serious consequences”. And so he did.

Therefore, if you make this decision now you have to calculate the risks; it is indeed a risk,  I know, but it’s also a fact that right now, Putin has a de-facto veto against Georgian membership of NATO, because, I have to tell you, NATO does not want to import the Abkhazian and South Ossetian problems into the alliance. That, regrettably, is a fact; so let’s face it, that’s how it is.

But Georgia itself could get rid of that Kremlin veto by saying okay, we do not give up Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but we accept that in the short run we would be members of NATO without those two Georgian territories [being covered by art. 5].

Q: Would a no-MAP, an instant kind of accession be a solution, if one wouldn’t want to give Russia time to pounce again? Is it realistic to expect that Georgia might be allowed in without the MAP?

A: On MAP I would like to say, and I have said it before, it is not a precondition for becoming a member of NATO; many people think it is, but you have a lot of ways to enter NATO.

So yes, [that could happen], because you have Georgia-NATO commission; Ukraine-NATO commission, [which] paves just another way towards a membership. Actually within this commission and within annual national programs, Georgia has done exactly the same as you would have done within the MAP. So you’ve done the same, but you’ve walked another path towards the same final destination.

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