Georgian soldiers attend a farewell ceremony before leaving for Afghanistan in Tbilisi, June 27, 2013.
/David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters

In late March, for the sixth consecutive year, Georgia’s national rugby team won the European Nations Cup. The string of wins has re-opened a debate on allowing the tiny Caucasus country, which seems to have outgrown its own tournament, into the Six Nations Championship, Europe’s elite rugby cup, which includes England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, and Wales. Yet money, not the quality of game, seems to be what Georgia lacks for the competition. Hinting at Tbilisi’s similarly unsuccessful bids to join NATO and the European Union, Georgians like to joke that the Six Nations Championship has been added to the no-go list of yet one more Western institution.

Tbilisi officially declared its intention to join NATO at the Prague Summit in 2002 and since then, it has been steadily advancing its standing with the alliance. In a gesture to recognize Georgia’s progress, NATO leaders agreed at the 2008 Bucharest Summit to eventually admit Georgia into the club. Eight years later, despite the country’s growing contribution to global security and its progress toward military and political reform, NATO member countries have remained reluctant to issue a Membership Action Plan (MAP), a standard mechanism for aspirant countries to prepare for membership.

The explanation is fairly obvious. The country’s relations with Moscow are troubled; with almost a quarter of its territory already occupied by the Russian Federation, Georgia is seen as one of the most militarily exposed countries in the region and hence, an additional worry for Western European leaders, who are generally quite unwilling to poke the Russian bear by extending NATO’s eastern frontiers. U.S. President Barack Obama, likewise, went from affirming “Georgia’s right to pursue NATO membership” in 2008 to explaining that there are “no immediate” plans to bring Georgia into the alliance in 2014. In other words, it is not much of a surprise that Georgia left empty handed from NATO summits in 2009, 2010, 2012, and 2014.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (R) and Georgian Prime Minister Irakly Garibashvili attend an opening ceremony of the joint training and evaluation center at the Krtsanisi settlement outside Tbilisi, Georgia, August 27, 2015.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (R) and Georgian Prime Minister Irakly Garibashvili attend an opening ceremony of the joint training and evaluation center at the Krtsanisi settlement outside Tbilisi, Georgia, August 27, 2015.
Irakli Gedenidze / Reuters
The country’s leadership, however, persists. In fact, at the upcoming Warsaw Summit, Tbilisi plans to drop its requests for a MAP and demand the outright removal of any intermediary steps to membership. The country has some standing for such a request. Georgia’s disproportionately high contributions to NATO-led military operations and its relatively successful experimentation with democracy have helped the country fulfill the two fundamental standards of NATO’s Open Door Policy.

Georgia is currently the second-largest contributor of troops in Afghanistan, having deployed 12,000 soldiers to the country since 2010. Moreover, Tbilisi already meets the two percent of GDP defense-spending requirement; only five other NATO member countries have met that obligation. The country’s recent acquisition of its air defense systems and the restructuring of the army along the Eastern and Western commands have further increased the nation’s defense capabilities. Along with that, Georgia has started participating in the NATO Response Force, which is NATO’s rapid-response outfit; hosted the first NATO-Georgia military drills; and inaugurated a NATO–Georgia Joint Training and Evaluation Center just outside of Tbilisi.

No less important is Georgia’s progress on democracy. For the last few years, Georgia has consistently ranked at the top among post-Soviet states (outside the Baltics) in Freedom House’s democracy assessment reports. Georgia’s 2012 parliamentary and 2013 presidential elections are unique examples of democratic and peaceful power transition in the region, where elections are generally not competitive and governments are not accountable to their people.

And so, having worked hard on their homework, Georgian leaders are ready to make a passionate case for membership. But it is not too difficult to predict the response; considering the absence of support in any leading NATO country, the door to NATO will, in all likelihood, remain shut. Instead, there will be a paragraph a few pages into the Warsaw Summit Declaration that tries to praise Georgia for its achievements, reaffirms the country’s membership prospects, and fails to lay out concrete benchmarks for when can Tbilisi finally qualify for MAP.

Soldiers from different countries stand at attention during an opening ceremony of NATO exercises Cooperative Longbow 09 and Cooperative Lancer 09 at Vaziani military base outside Tbilisi, May 11, 2009.
Soldiers from different countries stand at attention during an opening ceremony of NATO exercises Cooperative Longbow 09 and Cooperative Lancer 09 at Vaziani military base outside Tbilisi, May 11, 2009.
David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters
A few months after the summit, in October, Georgians will head to the polls to elect their parliament. And just like previous few votes, the election will be as much about foreign policy as domestic matters. And here, NATO will loom large. Unable to deliver on their promise to fully join the West, the pro-West parties will find it increasingly harder to rally the supporters around their agenda. And the pro-Russia ones, who have already mounted a massive information campaign around the idea that NATO membership is illusionary and places a disproportionately high burden for Georgia’s security, will further exploit the West’s perceived neglect of Georgia.

The numbers are telling. According to an opinion survey commissioned by the National Democratic Institute in August last year, 31 percent of respondents said they would “approve” if Georgia joined the Eurasian Union, Russia’s flagship counterweight to what it sees as a Western “expansion” in its backyard. In a similar survey conducted exactly a year before, the number of Eurasia Union supporters stood at 20 percent. In November 2013, it was 11 percent.

The two openly pro-Russian parties have gained ground in the last two general elections. In the 2013 presidential elections and the 2014 municipal elections, they obtained 10.2 percent and 16.8 percent of nationwide votes, respectively. By portraying the West as a troublemaker in conflicts in Ukraine and Syria and as an enemy of Orthodox Christianity and traditional family values, the pro-Russian parties have capitalized on the fears of Georgia’s conservatives and encouraged skepticism about the country’s Euro–Atlantic future.

As U.S. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper concluded in a February statement, “rising frustration” among Georgians over the country’s slow pace of Western integration and “increasingly effective Russian propaganda” might slow or suspend Tbilisi’s efforts toward Euro–Atlantic integration. Such a turn of events would not only harm Georgia’s stability and democratic development, but also come as a major blow to Georgia and to Western interests in the region.

Georgia has been a valuable military ally in the Caucasus. Its troops have been deployed alongside Western soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and most recently in the Central African Republic. It is an important East–West transportation corridor linking energy fields in Caspian Sea to Turkish and European markets, bypassing the route through Russia. Georgia is an important North–South transportation corridor as well, linking Russia to Armenia and the Middle East. Losing such a strategically located ally to Russia would put an end to projects aimed at diversifying Europe’s energy supply and could pave the way to further Russian adventures in the Middle East. That’s why Western capitals need to start taking Georgia’s request for NATO membership more seriously.

A priest blesses servicemen during a farewell ceremony at the Vaziani military base outside Tbilisi, March 24, 2015.
A priest blesses servicemen during a farewell ceremony at the Vaziani military base outside Tbilisi, March 24, 2015.
David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters
Launching the NATO–Georgia Training Center, running joint military exercises, and issuing declarations in support of Georgia’s eventual membership are all important signs of support to Georgia. But they are insufficient. What Georgia needs most at this moment is a strong security guarantee. And the best and the easiest way to do this is through a formal declaration that it can become a member of NATO at any time without a MAP.

The truth is that Georgia does not need such a plan anymore; the existing framework of NATO–Georgia cooperation—the Annual National Plan, the NATO–Georgia Commission, and the more recent Existential Package—already contain all the necessary technical measures to prepare the country for eventual membership. Substantively as well, Georgia is well ahead of some of the countries currently enrolled in the program. And to alleviate concerns that Russia's presence in portions of Georgia would trigger a NATO collective security response, Article 5 could be applied to only the territory outside of Abkhazia and South Ossetia until the conflict is settled.

Speeding up Georgia’s integration into NATO will leave Moscow unhappy, but losing Georgia would be far worse. Russia’s understanding that Georgia’s NATO membership is imminent might force it to play nice on Georgia’s border. But above all, opening the membership process will be a powerful message to Georgians that a Western orientation is well worth it.

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  • TORNIKE ZURABASHVILI is a Research Fellow at Georgia’s Reforms Associates (GRASS), a non-partisan, non-governmental policy watchdog and think tank based in Tbilisi, Georgia.
  • More By Tornike Zurabashvili