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A pessimistic prognosis for Bucharest

Monday, March 17
On the eve of NATO’s Bucharest summit, Russia has done its best, through diplomatic channels and public threats, to influence NATO’s decision on handing a Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Georgia.

The issue is vital for the Saakashvili administration. Much of their strength is built on the premise that only this government can protect Georgia by building the economy and moving the country into the Euro-Atlantic community.

Winning a MAP in Bucharest would be, in domestic politics, a sign that the government is adhering to its commitments—both on the military and on rule of law reforms—and that NATO want more of the same.

But if Saakashvili cannot bring home the goods in April, he’ll go into parliamentary elections stripped of the strongest justification for retaining the ruling party’s majority: that the state’s success, even its very existence, depends on rapid reforms carried out with the help of a cooperative legislature.

Voters see little improvements in their pocketbooks for all of Georgia’s lauded fiscal reform; the absence of progress internationally would add to the gripes. And it looks unlikely Tbilisi will catch a break in Bucharest. The Georgian government puts on a brave face, but Germany has been outspoken in its skepticism of Georgia’s bid, and the Financial Times also puts France, Spain, Italy, Greece and Norway in the ‘no’ column.

The reasons are that Georgia does not enjoy full rule of law, and Russia.

Some allies suggest inventing a new plan, somewhere just short of a MAP, to give Georgia for its efforts. This would help Saakashvili politically, but endlessly portioning out the membership process raises questions over what NATO membership criteria really mean.

Tbilisi’s biggest booster, of course, is Washington. Bush plans to visit Kiev shortly before the April summit to emphasize his support for the Ukrainian and Georgian MAP bids. The three possible successors to the US president give every indication they will follow the same policy for Georgia and NATO.

With just weeks before the summit, Georgian leaders say a final push is being made to find a consensus within NATO. But amid broader concerns over the Alliance’s raison d’etre, Tbilisi will struggle to make the case that, despite spotty domestic reform and Russian fearmongering, it deserves its MAP in April.