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After 10 Years And 30 Deaths, Georgians Question Their NATO Ambitions

Georgian soldiers march during a farewell ceremony marking their departure to Afghanistan near Tbilisi in March.
Georgian soldiers march during a farewell ceremony marking their departure to Afghanistan near Tbilisi in March.

Georgia has paid a high price for its ambition to join NATO.

On June 16, the South Caucasus country will bury the 30th soldier killed in support of the Euro-Atlantic alliance's missions in Afghanistan. Corporal Ramaz Davitaia died on June 8 of grievous wounds suffered in Helmand Province in June 2012.

"He fought on the battlefield heroically and continued to fight after he was wounded to remain among the ranks of committed warriors of Georgia," President Giorgi Margvelashvili said in a condolence message. "At this difficult time, I express my sympathy to his family, as well as to all the military service personnel and citizens of Georgia."

Ramaz Davitaia
Ramaz Davitaia

U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Richard Norland issued a statement saying Davitaia was "the exemplar of bravery, strength, and heroism."

The soldier's death is prompting some in Georgia to question whether the country is sacrificing too much for a goal that often seems unattainable.

For the last decade, joining NATO has been a stated priority of the Georgian government, and the country has become the alliance's most reliable nonmember partner. Georgia has participated in NATO operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan, as well as its counterterrorism mission in the Mediterranean.

With about 880 soldiers currently serving in NATO's Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, Georgia is making the second-largest contribution after the United States and more than NATO aspirants like Montenegro, Macedonia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Per capita, the contribution from the nation of 5 million is by far the biggest.

For years, NATO has been assuring Georgia that the door to the alliance is open. Yet the ultimate goal of membership keeps slipping further down the road. In March, the country was shocked when French President Francois Hollande said unambiguously that "France's position for the moment is to refuse any new [NATO] membership."

Nino Burjanadze: "Liars"
Nino Burjanadze: "Liars"

Former parliament speaker and opposition leader Nino Burjanadze responded by saying flatly: "Those in Georgia who claim we have a chance to become a NATO member state are liars."

An opinion survey conducted about a month later by the U.S. National Democratic Institute found that 68 percent of Georgians approve of the government's stated goal of joining NATO, down from 72 percent in August 2014 and a high of 82 percent in November 2013.

The same poll found that security and territorial integrity are only the fourth most-important issue for Georgians after the meat-and-potatoes matters of jobs, inflation, and poverty.

Advocates of the government's NATO policy are often reduced to arguing that the process of military reform it requires is itself worth pursuing.

"No one in Georgia today is under the illusion that [NATO] membership will be forthcoming in the short term," said Tbilisi-based journalist Zurab Dvali, speaking to RFE/RL's Current Time television. "It is clear that, considering the events in Ukraine, this process is going to be extended. But the main thing for Georgia in this is the process and the blueprint for creating a well-equipped, mobile army in line with NATO's standards."

"That is genuinely valuable for Georgia," Dvali added.

Vakhtang Kapanadze, chief of the joint staff of the Georgian Armed Forces: "This mission is very important to us."
Vakhtang Kapanadze, chief of the joint staff of the Georgian Armed Forces: "This mission is very important to us."

Vakhtang Kapanadze, chief of the joint staff of the Georgian Armed Forces, expressed a similar view.

"People ask what are we doing there [in Afghanistan] when we have so many problems in Georgia?" Kapanadze told Current Time. "I would say that this mission is very important for us. First, because it is a great way of showing the world that we are participating in its collective security. Second, because it is the best way of confronting security challenges and risks far from home rather than in our own country. We understand this. And third, because it is an excellent school for our military."

He said the Defense Ministry's job is to "work, work, and work with our troops to bolster the defense capabilities of the country.

"Then we will be more attractive to NATO than some weak, collapsing state," he said.

INFOGRAPHIC: Nations Who Are Contributing To NATO's Afghan Mission (click here)

And even if Georgia did join NATO, would it provide the security Georgians crave seven years after their country's war with Russia?

In a poll released on June 10 by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center, more than half of those surveyed in Germany, France, and Italy said that if Russia were to get into a "serious military conflict" with one of its neighbors that is a NATO ally, their country should not use military force to defend it.

Although NATO membership remains an official goal of the current Georgian government, there are signs it is less committed to that aim than the government of former President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Moscow's objection to Saakashvili's drive to join the alliance was a contributing cause of the five-day war in which Russian forces pushed deep into Georgia in 2008.

In March, parliament deputy Gogi Topadze, leader of the Industry Will Save Georgia party that is part of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, said the country should focus on economic development and forget about joining NATO.

"We must achieve neutrality and not be dependent on NATO or Russia," he told the newspaper Versia. "Nobody [in NATO] is saying they will accept us even after 10 years, so we shouldn't lie to the people. We do not support that, my partners and I."

He also said that joining the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union would be economically beneficial for Georgia.

In a June 9 interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli downplayed Topadze's remarks, noting that his signature is on the Georgian Dream coalition's founding declaration.

"In this declaration, it is clearly stated that this government is taking office with the goal of making sure Georgia gets clearer prospects for its path toward Euro-Atlantic integration and NATO membership," she said.

Khidasheli also said she is pleased with the "results" achieved by the government and, particularly, the Defense Ministry. She is optimistic that Georgia will receive a positive indication from NATO at the alliance's July 2016 summit in Warsaw.

In the meantime, General Kapanadze says Georgia's contribution to the Afghanistan mission will continue.

"We are satisfied and it is a pleasure for me to hear the praise that our troops receive," he said. "They are really doing very difficult work very far from home."

Written by RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL's Georgian Service and Current Time television