Georgian legislators in Tbilisi are mulling an expedited North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) membership strategy following nearly a decade of frustrated efforts to join the military alliance.
NATO leaders pledged in 2008 to secure membership for Georgia and Ukraine but stopped short of granting the former Soviet republics Membership Action Plan (MAP) status, which would speed membership.
Now, Tbilisi lawmakers say they are seriously considering a fast-track approach recently put forward by the Washington-based Heritage Foundation think tank.
"In accordance to our national priorities and by consultations with our strategic partners, we will make every effort to accelerate our integration," Georgian Parliamentary Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze told VOA, referring to the Heritage proposal to grant membership by temporarily excluding the country's Russian-occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from NATO's Article 5 security guarantee.
Article 5 says an attack on one member is considered an attack on all members, which is why Moscow strongly opposes the NATO ambitions of Georgia in particular.
"Many are worried that Georgia's NATO membership will mean automatic war with Russia over the occupied regions," said Luke Coffey, the analyst who drafted the proposal for the conservative-leaning think tank. "Georgia can be invited to join NATO by amending Article 6 of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty."
Article 6 defines specific territories within a given nation that would be subject to NATO's Article 5 security guarantee.
"This amendment can be made with Georgia's accession protocol as it was in 1951 when Turkey and Greece joined the alliance," said Coffey, describing his fast-track proposal as a temporary measure that would last until — and if — "Georgia's full, internationally recognized territory is re-established by peaceful and diplomatic means."
Although Georgia pledged in 2010 to not use force to try to regain control of the two breakaway regions, Russia never reciprocated and continues to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries. The regions comprise 20 percent of Georgian territory, where Russia has maintained thousands of troops since fighting a five-day war against Tbilisi in 2008.
Coffey says offering Georgia NATO membership with an amended Article 6 would allow Georgia to join NATO more quickly and prevent Moscow from keeping other countries out of NATO by effectively occupying part of their territory.
However a top NATO official, who spoke on condition she not be identified, told VOA that the Brussels-based alliance believes Georgia should be able to enter NATO intact.
"Georgia will not be forced to choose between its territorial integrity and membership in NATO," she said. "We call upon Russia to reverse its recognition of these territories, to stop the construction of border-like obstacles along the administrative boundary lines and to abide by its international commitments.
"This principle is stated in international agreements including the Helsinki Final Act and the NATO-Russia Founding Act, both signed by Russia," she added. "No third country has a right to interfere on the issue of NATO membership. We support the right of all our partners to make independent and sovereign choices on foreign and security policy, free from external pressure or coercion."
Critics of Georgia's NATO accession, such as William Courtney, a former U.S. ambassador to Georgia, say Tbilisi hasn't proven that it is ready for membership.
"NATO allies need to be sure that Georgia can accept the financial burden of NATO membership," Courtney told VOA.
"Currently, Georgia's per capita gross domestic product is far below NATO average — it's only one-fourth as high as the Baltic states," he said, adding that Georgian rule of law and subpar territorial defenses were also impediments to accession. "Once Georgia is ready to go into NATO, Russia will think harder about engaging in aggression against Georgia because Georgia at that point will be stronger in its defense, stronger in its democracy and economy."
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, however, has said, "Georgia has all the practical tools to become a member."
Georgia is currently the fourth-largest contributor to NATO's Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, where 870 Georgian military personnel help train, advise and assist Afghan defense and security forces. Georgia was the largest non-NATO troop contributor to the International Security Assistance Force until the program was terminated in 2014.
"NATO [has] accepted countries that were less ready for membership than Georgia is today," said Mamuka Tsereteli, a senior fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program for transatlantic research and policy.
This story originated in VOA's Georgian service.