Modernisation of the defense sector is not all that NATO is interested in, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in Tbilisi on October 4, “there must be continued progress, especially in ensuring the independence of the judiciary.”
Scheffer, who is paying his second visit to Georgia in three years, said in a speech delivered at Tbilisi State University earlier on Thursday, that there also was “a need for greater transparency on the part of the political establishment.”
Opposition parties are expected to pick up on these remarks in light of the current political standoff in the country. Most of the main opposition parties have come together to push the authorities to hold early parliamentary elections in the hope that they can end, what they call, “an authoritarian style of governance.”
Commentators in Georgia say the visit by the NATO Secretary General is of crucial importance for the country which hopes to join NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) when the alliance holds a summit in Bucharest in April 2008.
Some opposition politicians, however, say the timing of the visit is not very favorable for the country’s NATO ambitions. They point to the political standoff between the authorities and the opposition following the arrest of the ex-defense minister, Irakli Okruashvili, and say that suggestions that the Georgian authorities hold political prisoners will be viewed disfavorably in Brussels.
Speaking about Georgian defense and security reforms, Scheffer said that NATO would keep a close eye on how rationally Georgia’s increased defense budget was spent.
This year Georgia has had a record high defense budget, amounting to GEL 1.271 billion (approximately USD 765 million). The figure amounts to 22% of entire state expenditures and to more than 7% of the country’s GDP.
“NATO supports Georgia's sovereign right to spend what it chooses on defense, and to organize its military forces as it thinks best,” Scheffer said. “However, the Alliance will continue to look carefully at how the defense process is conducted, in order to ensure that money is spent rationally, according to agreed plans, and balanced against other priorities like poverty reduction and education.”
He also pointed out that NATO would continue to monitor “the whole reform picture.” A crucial part of this picture, he said, was the rule of law, “which really is the cornerstone of any democracy.”
“Georgia has made significant progress in outlining and beginning the implementation of judicial reform,” Scheffer said. “But there must be continued progress, especially in ensuring the independence of the judiciary.”
“We also feel that there is a need for greater transparency on the part of the political establishment – in order to better explain and debate reforms with the general public, strengthen their credibility and consolidate the democratic process.”
“This is one more area on which we will keep a close eye in the run-up to your Parliamentary and Presidential elections next year, which we all hope will continue the positive trend that we saw in the local elections last year,” Scheffer added.
Opposition parties have constantly accused the authorities of lacking the political will to engage in dialogue with them and the wider public. Nino Burjanadze, the parliamentary speaker who met with Scheffer on October 4, however, said that she was ready to engage in dialogue.
Speaking at Tbilisi State University, the NATO Secretary General said that the door to NATO was open “and it will remain open in the future – but it is not an automatic door.”
“Aspirants must meet rigorous standards before they are admitted,” he said, without giving any specific timeframe of when Georgia would enter the alliance's Membership Action Plan.
Currently the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) remains, as Scheffer put it, “the main practical tool” for Georgia-NATO cooperation. IPAP lays out specific reform targets that should be addressed by Georgia.
At the political level, there is the so-called Intensified Dialogue between NATO and Georgia, wherein Georgia’s aspiration for further Euro-Atlantic integration is discussed on a regular basis.
“I want to stress that there is no timeline for our Intensified Dialogue,” Scheffer said. “And further progress in our relationship will depend on Georgia being able to demonstrate that it is capable of meeting those commitments.”
Alluding to Russian unease with further NATO expansion, Scheffer said countries outside the alliance had no veto over NATO enlargement. He also pointed out that NATO enlargement “is not directed against any country.”
Scheffer also spoke about Georgia’s secessionist conflicts and made it clear that the alliance “does not seek stronger involvement” in the resolution process.
“The mandate and expertise to try and resolve the conflicts in this region rest with the OSCE and the UN, not with NATO,” he said.
He also said that there were no alternatives to peaceful settlements of the conflicts.
“I am confident that the Georgian Government will stick to its commitment [to resolve the conflicts peacefully] because it has, over the past few years, shown a growing seriousness in tackling difficult domestic issues, and conducting a constructive foreign policy,” Scheffer said.
“We appreciate the restraint and responsibility that Georgia has shown in its relations with Russia, and its determination to find constructive solutions.”
Jaap de Hoop Scheffer met with President Saakashvili later on the same day in the small town of Signagi in the Kakheti region, which is a showcase town for the Georgian tourism industry.
At a joint news conference after the meeting in Signagi, President Saakashvili said that the Georgian government was committed to continuing reforms.
“Georgia will continue establishing European standards more vigorously, we will continue reforming our army more vigorously,” Saakashvili said. “This is my pledge given, first and foremost to my people and then to the international community.”