Author: Rosaria Puglisi, the Head of the NATO Liaison Office in Georgia
It’s time to pack my bags and say my good-byes. After four memorable years, my term as the Head of the NATO Liaison Office (NLO) in Georgia is coming to an end. During this time I have seen the partnership between NATO and Georgia expand in breadth and depth. The NLO has worked arm in arm with successive Georgian governments and parliaments, with the National Security Council and other state structures, with non-governmental organizations and civil society. I feel that, despite the challenges, we have moved our collective agenda further, preparing Georgia to become a member of the Alliance.
Together we have focused on institution building, strengthening Georgia’s resilience and supporting the modernization of the defence and security sector. Through our Professional Development Programme (PDP) we have contributed to the professional growth of the Georgian civil servants and the public administration at large. Through Building Integrity (BI) we have played a role in anti-corruption and good governance reform efforts. Engaging members of Parliament, we have worked on a political culture that promotes the full accountability and the democratic control of the security structures. The Substantial NATO-Georgia Package (SNGP) works to bring the Georgian security and defence institutions in line with NATO standards, thus contributing to making it more effective and better able to protect Georgia, its people and its territory.
The military-to-military cooperation between NATO and Georgia is a key component of our partnership and it is aimed at enhancing Georgian defence capacity. During the 2019 NATO-Georgia Exercise, I felt proud of and cheered with my Georgian military colleagues for their success. Training side-by-side at the NATO-Georgia Joint Training and Evaluation Centre (JTEC), 350 participants from 24 Allied and Partner countries demonstrated the effectiveness of Georgia’s command and control capabilities. The 2020 Partnership Agreement between the NATO Joint Force Training Centre and JTEC marked another step up in the NATO-Georgia military cooperation.
Overall, our joint efforts have been aimed at making this wonderful country stronger in the face of security challenges and more resilient vis-à-vis potential threats.
COVID-19 has brought us an unexpected degree of dismay, sorrow and practical complications. It has forced us to cut down on projects, change our ways of working and adapt to the newly emerged circumstances. Our collective resilience has been put to the test. Yet, we have remained active. Few weeks into the first lockdown in the spring of 2020, we welcomed again, as in previous years, a visit of NATO vessels in the port of Poti. Looking back, it is amazing that the visit could take place at all. We knew so little about the virus at that time. Protective measures were stringent, but tentative. For security reasons, NATO military personnel could not come onshore and training exercises included ship manoeuvres only, without crew interactions. Yet, we all felt that the presence of NATO ships in a Georgian port was an important display of support and we all worked relentlessly to make sure that it could happen in safe and secure conditions for all.
Throughout these two years of the pandemic, NATO-Georgia Commission (NGC) meetings have kept taking place in Brussels, thus maintaining our dynamic political dialogue. Equally, in both 2020 and 2021 the Annual National Programme (ANP), the yearly reform plan designed to bring Georgia closer to NATO, has been written, reviewed and assessed despite the lockdowns and the travel restrictions. We have experimented with meetings online, resumed intensive exchanges of written documents, brainstormed remotely on ideas and projects. Paradoxically, despite the geographical distance, we have connected more easily and felt closer. Who could have imagined that the cumbersome process to refresh the SNGP could be finalized perfectly on time for the Foreign Ministerial meeting of December 2020? Georgian and NATO officials’ joint assessment of the effectiveness of the SNGP 13 initiatives (now increased to 16), objectives and resources would have been considered a mammoth task at the best of times. Yet, under COVID-19 conditions it became almost epic. Chapeau to my colleagues in Tbilisi and Brussels who worked tirelessly to accomplish it!
In between successive COVID-19 waves we have welcomed in Georgia the NATO Military Committee, for the second time during my term, and two consecutive Chairs of the Military Committee, Commanders from the NATO Command Structure, as well as both the outgoing and the newly appointed NATO Special Representatives for the South Caucasus, James Appathurai and Javier Colomina. This adds to the extraordinary pre-COVID-19 record of NATO visits that Georgia can sport in comparison to other NATO partners: NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg in March 2019, NATO Deputy Secretary General, Rose Gottemoeller, NATO Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy, Ambassador Tacan Ildem, the North Atlantic Council in October 2019, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and two of its then Presidents. All this during my term in office only.
The frequency of NATO visits to Georgia is a sign of the uniqueness of this partnership, which is systematically reflected in the breadth of instruments that Georgia has at its disposal to pursue its Euro Atlantic ambitions. “Georgia has all the tools to become a member of the Alliance” – remember the refrain? All NATO Summits’ final communiques since 2008 have never missed the opportunity to reassure Georgia that it will become a member of the Alliance and to reiterate the organisation’s unwavering support for Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
As I am sure it is the case for many of my colleagues, COVID-19 has deprived me of one of the greatest pleasures of my job in Georgia – the possibility to meet people and discuss with them the work that is being undertaken to bring their country into NATO. Pre-pandemic, we used to have a very busy public diplomacy schedule. From Mestia to Lagodekhi, from Telavi to Kutaisi I must have spoken with hundreds of teachers, students, local administrators, journalists, clergies of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Among them I found determination for their country’s future in NATO, some scepticism and a lot of disinformation. I have particularly fond memories of a long, beautiful and thought-provoking conversation that the Polish Ambassador and I had in the outskirts of Khashuri, in a glorious summer afternoon, with students from villages adjacent to the Administrative Boundary Line with South Ossetia. They and their families are among those who bear the brunt of the ongoing conflict and need reassurance and encouragement that efforts are underway to make sure that their lives will get better.
Because of the pandemic, we had to cut on this sort of events, sadly, and, as many of our national and international partners, we have shifted to social platforms. I am immensely grateful to my NLO colleagues for their dynamism and creativity in coping with “the new normal” and for coming up with a volcano of ideas to keep sharing news on our activities. Nothing better than the lack of information paves the way to misconceptions. Checkout our Facebook and LinkedIn presence at “NATO in Georgia” to see what impressive work is underway.
We have effectively partnered also with civil society to counter disinformation and build resilience. Thank you to all those dedicated individuals and organisations that constitute the fabric of Georgian society and contribute every day to make things better. With their support we have, for example, trained journalists to better understand the complexity of the NATO-Georgia partnership; we have created a network of young women engaged in security, defence and international relations; we have supported a student simulation of NATO decision-making at a time of crisis; we have run a photo competition and gathered astonishing pictures of resilience in Georgia. The NATO Public Diplomacy division issues annual grants accessible to all civil society and non-governmental organizations. So please keep an eye on our social media feeds to see when the next information session will take place, and apply, if you are eligible.
Boarding the plane in a few weeks’ time I will still have in my eyes the faces of the many wonderful people I have met and the breath-taking places I visited. I have so many thank yous to say for the acts of kindness and dedication, so many cheers to give for the braveness and the resilience that I have witnessed in these four years. I am partial to Georgia. This is a country of great potential and with an undisputable European destiny. I am looking forward to the day when I will come back to raise a Qvevri Saperavi toast to the Georgian membership into NATO. Until then, Gaumarjos!
This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian)