TBILISI - This story originated in VOA's Georgian Service.
Former NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen says Georgian officials should consider joining the U.S.-led European military alliance without protections for the country's Russian-occupied regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Speaking with VOA's Georgian Service in Tbilisi on Tuesday, Rasmussen, who stepped down as head of the 29-nation military bloc in 2014, said the post-Soviet Republic's stellar compliance with prerequisite membership criteria justifies a broader public dialogue on the matter.
"Georgia fulfills almost all criteria to become a member of NATO," he said. "I think the way to move beyond that stalemate is to discuss in Georgia whether you will accept an arrangement where NATO's Article 5 covers only that Georgian territory where the Georgian government has full sovereignty."
Article 5 of the NATO Treaty says an attack on one member is considered an attack on all members, which is why Russia, which has maintained thousands of troops in the two secessionist regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia since fighting a five-day war against Tbilisi in 2008, strongly opposes the NATO ambitions of Georgia in particular.
"In other words, by excluding Abkhazia and South Ossetia from NATO's Article 5—if you decide that you're willing to accept that—you can go to NATO and say, 'Ok, NATO will not be involved in those border disputes, so we are ready to move. Will NATO move?'" he said. "I think that's a way to get some progress."
Most Georgians, however, still refer to the line of contact with the Russian-occupied territories as a border conflict rather than a border dispute, and Georgian officials have expressed concern that securing NATO membership without protections for the occupied territories would be tantamount to recognizing a Russian annexation.
"I don't see huge political costs," he said. "The fact is that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are de facto occupied by Russia. So, without giving up those territories that have been recognized internationally as part of Georgia, without giving up on that, you could move forward in the discussions on a future NATO membership."
An arrangement similar to what applied to Eastern Germany at the outset of the Cold War, he said, represents a possible NATO membership policy precedent for Georgia.
"Eastern Germany was not covered by NATO's Article 5 during the Cold War, and it wasn't until the reunification of Germany after the end of the Cold War that NATO rules also applied to East Germany," he said. "Exactly the same arrangement could be considered in Georgia."
It is not the first time the idea has been proposed.
In 2018, Georgian Parliamentary Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze told VOA that lawmakers were willing to accelerate euro-Atlantic integration even if it meant excluding the Russian-occupied territories.
Buy many observers warned that any NATO membership for Georgia, even with Article 5 exclusions for the occupied territory, would mean automatic war with Russia.
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.
Although Georgia pledged in 2010 to not use force to try to regain control of the two breakaway regions, Russia never reciprocated and continues, along with Nicaragua, Venezuela, Syria, and Nauru, to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries.