NATO PA Session in Valencia

As part of its activities related to information exchange and networking, the Office for a Democratic Belarus attended the 54th Annual Session of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, which was held in Valencia (Spain) on 14-18 November 2008.

The NATO Parliamentary Assembly is an inter-parliamentary organisation that brings together legislators from the 26 member states of the North Atlantic Alliance and 13 associate members, including the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Georgia, and the Middle Eastern states. The Assembly serves as a forum for international dialogue on a wide range of security, political and economic issues pertaining to the scope of the Alliance’s agenda. Its principal objective is to facilitate parliamentary awareness and understanding of key security challenges and NATO policies, and to provide parliamentary oversight over these policies, thereby assuming a degree of collective responsibility. Since the end of the Cold War, representatives from non-member nations have also had the opportunity to take part in NATO PA’s work and to contribute to the debate on the security challenges facing the Alliance and the world community. This participation has also provided both Alliance aspirants and countries seeking co-operation rather than membership with political and practical assistance in the development of mechanisms and practices necessary for the effective democratic control of the armed forces. 

Among the topics discussed by some 350 parliamentarians attending the Valencia Session were the challenges of enlargement, the Alliance’s military transformation, the operation in Afghanistan, and the new security threats such as piracy and energy security. Particular attention in the debates received the Russian-Georgian conflict of August 2008 and the future of NATO-Russian relations. While acknowledging the achievements of NATO-Russia co-operation and partnership, a resolution adopted at the Plenary Session expressed grave concern over ‘Russia’s disproportionate use of force in Georgia in August 2008 and the failure to comply swiftly with ceasefire agreements’. It nonetheless urged NATO member states ‘to re-establish wide-ranging co-operation with Russia’ and stressed that this partnership needs to ‘rest upon common values, particularly respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states and the peaceful resolution of conflicts’.

A separate resolution on the conflict between the Russian Federation and Georgia recognised that ‘the facts surrounding the outbreak of the hostilities...have not been authoritatively established’ and recommended that NATO governments and parliaments ‘contribute to an independent international inquiry to determine the chain of events that led to this conflict’. Yet it noted that Russia ‘had, for many months, been increasing the number of troops, specialised forces, and military equipment in South Ossetia and Abkhazia well beyond levels appropriate for peacekeeping forces, thereby contributing to an escalation of tensions in both regions’. It also described Russia’s use of force as ‘disproportionate’, while deploring the occupation of Georgian territory and the ethnic cleansing of Georgians in South Ossetia as actions that contradict UN Security Council resolutions, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Council of Europe commitments undertaken by the Russian government. While acknowledging the importance of maintaining a constructive dialogue with Russia, the resolution called upon the Alliance to offer a Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Georgia – a move that Russia has long opposed. 

In his address to the Assembly, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said the Alliance would not want to choose between good relations with Russia and further enlargement. ‘Trustful NATO-Russia relations are a strategic asset – a boon to European and indeed global security’, noted de Hoop Scheffer. He also admitted that the Caucasus conflict showed that the relationship requires serious revision but admitted that ‘“no business as usual” still means “business”’, as both sides have an incentive to co-operate, particularly in dealing with common challenges such as arms control, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. Nevertheless, NATO Secretary General assured the delegates that the Alliance’s approach to enlargement would not undergo a fundamental change, thereby confirming the adherence to the decisions of the Bucharest Summit regarding Georgia and Ukraine’s prospects to join NATO in the future.

The President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, suggested that it was the ambiguity of the message from Bucharest, and the absence of unity among European powers on the issue of NATO membership for his country, that sent the ‘wrong signal’ to Moscow. He described Russian aggression against Georgia as ‘the most flagrant violation of international law since the Second World War’. In his opinion, the conflict should not be seen as an isolated case, and Europe could see more ‘Georgias’. Refuting the claims that it was Georgia that fired first shot, President Saakashvili said his country acted solely in self-defence. ‘We had been faced with the bad choice of a Russian military invasion and the worse choice of occupation’, explained Saakashvili. He also said he would welcome an international mission investigating the origins of the conflict and added that a national commission, which includes members of the opposition, has already started an inquiry into the role and responsibility of the Georgian leadership in the August events.

Although President Saakashvili underlined the importance for the Georgians of receiving a clear signal from the Alliance that they was on the path to membership, he assured the audience that, regardless of the outcome of the NATO foreign ministers meeting in December 2008, Georgia is determined to further pursue the reform process it has embarked on in the aftermath of the Rose Revolution. In fact, his address to the Assembly was almost entirely devoted to the achievements of the Georgian leadership in eradicating corruption, liberalising the economy and establishing democratic institutions and rule of law. And the progress of the country that only a few years ago was characterised by rampant corruption, the non-existent economy and dysfunctional state institutions is undoubtedly very impressive.    

Speaking to the members of the Defence and Security Committee on 15 November, Giorgi Baramidze, the State Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration and Deputy Prime Minister of Georgia, also called upon the Assembly to support Georgia’s application for MAP, although he recognised it was too early to speak about full membership for Georgia in the Alliance. He proposed that NATO takes lead in conducting an enquiry on the causes of the August conflict, but said Georgia would not object the EU taking on this task. He also stated that Tbilisi is ready to grant 'the highest degree of sovereignty' for South Ossetia and promised that Georgia would seek good-neighbourly relations with Russia.

Among government officials and representatives of the academia and international organisations that addressed the 54th NATO PA session in Valencia were also Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) for NATO General Bantz J. Craddock, Secretary of State of Kazakhstan Kanat Saudabayev, Chief of Defence Staff of Spain Jose Julio Rodriguez Fernandez and others.

Particular attention deserves an excellent presentation by Maria Lipman from the Moscow office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Lipman’s thought provoking paper traced changes in the correlation between Russia’s foreign and domestic policies, from the late Perestroika period to the present day. She demonstrated how the foreign policy of the early Yeltsin era, which was a reflection of ‘political pluralism and an unconstrained freedom’ that existed at home, has changed with the advent to power of Vladimir Putin. Resentful over the weakened state, Putin has quickly come to rely on ‘a traditional vision of the Russian statehood with centralised power and a dominant figure at the top’. He has embarked on a campaign neutralising all potential challengers to his power and ensured control over political parties and the legislature. While describing his policy as pragmatic and aiming to use Russia’s rich natural resources to the best advantage of the nation, Lipman pointed out that the complex internal situation and the ambiguous image of the West as a partner and, simultaneously, as an adversary, as well as the desire to re-assert Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space often got in the way of Putin’s foreign policy agenda. Anti-Western, anti-American sentiments have gradually come to constitute the ‘primary tool of domestic policies’ and the foreign policy has become the main driving force of policies at home. ‘The military conflict [with Georgia] that was perceived as a clash with the US was a perfect embodiment of the world view of Russia as a besieged fortress’, said Lipman. She noted that Russia’s quick victory inspired among its people ‘a sense of pride and moral righteousness’ and provided ‘a genuine and overwhelming public support’ to the ruling elite, but stressed that the conflict ‘posed a grave challenge to the modernisation, integrationist mode of Russia’s development’.  

Although Belarus was not on the official agenda of the NATO PA session in Valencia, the repercussions of the Russian-Georgian conflict and the further developments in relations between NATO and Russia would undoubtedly have a serious impact on the situation in this country. 'Europe should learn one lesson from the events in Caucasus – we cannot pretend not seeing again what is happening in Belarus, and then, having woken up one day, start expressing interest in the ways to return to the status quo ante’, said Lithuania’s Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Laimonas Talat-Kelpsa in his recent interview to ELTA. According to the Lithuanian diplomat, Russia has already started applying the policy of ‘handwringing’: ‘the Belarusian authority is forced to take huge loans and give away strategic assets’. It is therefore crucial that the West develops a clear position on this process and reacts in an appropriate way, urged Talat-Kelpsa.

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer NATO PA

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, NATO PA Session

Saakashvili NATO PA

Saakashvili, NATO PA Session

Photos by Isabelle Arcis

The Office for a Democratic Belarus press-service