As Georgia and Macedonia Wait, Kerry Says NATO Membership Decisions ‘Free From Outside Influences’

By Patrick Goodenough | May 20, 2016 | 4:14am EDT
Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Thursday, May 19, 2016. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

( – As NATO foreign ministers on Thursday welcomed Montenegro as the alliance’s 29th member, two other countries that have been knocking on NATO’s “open door” for many years appear to be no closer to admission, due largely to rigid opposition from neighboring states.

Despite the fact that opposition from Greece has stymied Macedonia’s aspirations, and objections from Russia have put Georgia’s bid on hold, Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday NATO’s admission policies were not subject to “outside influences.”

“The United States also remains fully committed to NATO’s open door policy,” he told reporters in Brussels. “Montenegro’s accession underscores once again our determination to be able to make membership decisions that are free from outside influences.”

Kerry later reiterated the point.

“NATO will not be influenced by some kind of outside event or series of lobbying efforts or other things, but on the measure of the criteria for membership NATO will make its decision appropriately,” he said.

“And it means that the open door policy actually has meaning; that it is open; and that countries that, in fact, work hard to meet the standard have an opportunity to be able to find membership.”

That has not proven true for Macedonia or Georgia, however.

Macedonia was granted a NATO “membership action plan” (MAP) – which puts an aspiring member on the road to accession – 17 years ago, and as long ago as 2008 members agreed that it had met the criteria for membership.

But neighboring Greece has blocked all attempts by Macedonia to join, based on a longstanding dispute over the country’s name.

Greece says its northern neighbor’s use of the name “Macedonia” implies a territorial claim to the northern Greek province that shares that name. Over the decades since Macedonia won independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, mediation over the issue has failed to find a solution. In the interim, both NATO and the U.N. call Macedonia “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (FYROM).

At successive NATO summits, the alliance has reconfirmed that Macedonia will be able to join once the name dispute is settled. The same message is expected to be delivered at the next summit, in Warsaw this summer.

Alongside the foreign ministers’ meetings in Brussels, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg was asked about Macedonia’s prospects, and cited both its dispute with Greece and an unrelated political crisis tied to upcoming elections.

“We have seen with the enlargement of – the invitation of Montenegro to join the alliance that the door of NATO is still open,” he told reporters. “But it is crucial that if we are going to move further with FYROM then we have to both solve the problems related to the name but also we have to make sure that minimum conditions are put in place for credible elections.”

U.S. lawmakers have periodically introduced legislation in support of Macedonia’s accession and were disappointed when, at the last U.S.-hosted NATO summit the administration did not do more to push its membership bid along.

Instead that summit, in Chicago in 2012, informed Macedonia it could join “as soon as a mutually acceptable solution to the name issue has been reached within the framework of the U.N.”

Earlier, dozens of lawmakers from both parties had urged President Obama to ensure that NATO offers Macedonia its “well-deserved” formal invitation to join, while former defense secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and William Cohen and former national security advisor Sandy Berger told the president in a letter that the U.S. “cannot afford to send mixed messages to those nations that are willing to stand up and be counted.”

They were referring in part to Macedonia’s contributions to NATO-led operations.

At one stage the country, which is a little bigger than New Jersey and has two million people, accounted for the biggest per capita troop contribution to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan – a significantly larger contribution than NATO member Greece was making.

Outside NATO missions, Macedonia also contributed troops to the coalition effort in Iraq between 2003 and 2008.  Greece, by contrast, firmly opposed the Iraq war.

‘Valuable ally’

As frustrating as the situation is for Macedonia, another aspiring NATO member has an even higher hurdle to overcome – the determined opposition of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

While Macedonia has had a MAP in place since 1999, the former Soviet republic of Georgia has not even got that far.

Despite strong support from the George W. Bush administration, Georgia’s MAP request was turned down at a NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008, with opposition led by Western European members leery of angering Moscow.

Both Georgia and Ukraine were told in Bucharest that they “will become members” at some future, unspecified date.

In Chicago four years later, NATO leaders repeated that assurance.

And now, another four years on, there is still no indication of when the MAP may be forthcoming. Citing the Russian factor, U.S. ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute told a forum in London last month he did not envisage “much additional room in the near term – the next several years perhaps or even longer – for additional NATO expansion.”

Noting that NATO operates on consensus, Lute added, “there’s no way we’re going to get consensus any time in the near future, on adding Georgia or Ukraine.”

In Brussels, Stoltenberg predicted that the Warsaw summit “will recognize the progress Georgia is making.”

“We will continue to work with Georgia, we will continue to defend Georgia’s rights to make its own decisions and we will continue to work on reforms and help Georgia moving towards NATO membership,” Stoltenberg added.

Like Macedonia, Georgia allied itself to the U.S.-led mission in Iraq and was a major contributor to ISAF in Afghanistan – at times becoming the biggest non-NATO contributor.

A Georgian honor guard carries the remains of a soldier killed in Afghanistan in May 2013. A total of 28 Georgian troops lost their lives in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2015. (AP Photo, File)

Five Georgian troops were killed in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, and another 28 in Afghanistan between 2010 and last year.

Furthermore, Georgia dedicates more than two percent of GDP to defense spending. That’s a pledge all NATO members committed to 10 years ago. As of 2015, only five of the 28 met the standard – the U.S., Britain, Poland, Greece and Estonia.

In a speech on the House floor last week, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) called on the U.S. to “be vocal and support Georgia’s quest to be in NATO,” calling it a “valuable ally.”

“Dictator Putin knows if Georgia is a successful democracy, then Georgia’s neighbors are going to want to follow that lead and become more democratic,” Poe said. “It is in our national interest to support Georgia and their democratic aspirations in their journey for liberty.”

He also noted that nearly 70 percent of Georgians support joining the alliance. (One recent poll, by the International Republican Institute, put the figure even higher, at 79 percent.)

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