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Caucasus Report: July 22, 2005

22 July 2005, Volume 8, Number 24

WHY SHOULD GEORGIA NEED A LARGER ARMY? In the late 1990s, faced with budget constraints and acting on the advice of expert Western advisers, the Georgian leadership resolved to slash the size of the armed forces to create a small, mobile army that would meet NATO standards (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 19 February 2001). Since then, the armed forces have indeed been downsized from approximately 38,000 men to some 20,000 in early 2004, primarily by reducing ancillary, noncombat personnel.

On his appointment as defense minister in early 2004, former Deputy Defense Minister Gela Bezhuashvili said the armed forces would be reduced further in size, to around 15,000 men, Caucasus Press reported on 20 February 2004. But Irakli Okruashvili, who took over in December from Bezhuashvili's successor Giorgi Baramidze, said while visiting Washington last month that he thinks it may be necessary to increase the number of active duty personnel, possibly by adding one more brigade to the existing four, according to "Jane's Defence Weekly" on 29 June.

In its report for 2005, the International Security Advisory Board (ISAB), established in 1998 at the request of the Georgian government to advise on security and military issues, noted that earlier reviews had identified an optimum total strength of 13,000-15,000 active-duty personnel for the Georgian armed forces. The ISAB report further noted that plans for a four-brigade structure plus an increased reserve force would "represent an increase of 25-30 percent on earlier planning figures" in the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) agreed with NATO last year, and thus "raises questions of affordability." (The IPAP was originally submitted to NATO in April 2004 but underwent several revisions before its final endorsement in late October -- see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 November 2004). The ISAB report called for a "rigorous analysis" of force structures and numbers based on an agreed threat analysis and "realistic long-term budget assessments."

In a bid to render the Georgian armed forces more effective, the United States in early 2002 launched a two-year, $64 million program, "Train and Equip," to create three battalions and one motorized company that would conform to NATO standards (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February and 3 May 2002). After that program was successfully concluded last year, a follow-up program was launched with comparable funding to train a further 4,000 Georgian servicemen. At the same time, Georgia launched an ambitious program last fall for training 15,000-20,000 reservists. In late October, Caucasus Press reported that three battalions of reservists had already been established and 15 more would be trained by the end of 2005. Georgian parliamentary deputies and local governors, including Gigi Ugulava, then governor of Mingrelia and Upper Svaneti, vied with each other to enroll in these battalions, which underwent intensive basic training over a period of several weeks. Okruashvili frequently checked personally on the progress made by the trainees, mobilizing them on one occasion in February for a 9-kilometer nighttime run.

Some observers, however, have questioned whether the reservists' training program serves any useful purpose. Military lawyer Shalva Tadumadze of the NGO Law and Freedom told Caucasus Press in February that the training program as presently constituted is of no practical benefit, and is simply a waste of money.

Okruashvili's stated rationale for reversing the downsizing of recent years is that Georgia currently has some 1,000 troops deployed as part of the international peacekeeping force in Iraq. But there are grounds for suspecting that his ultimate objective is to launch a new military offensive to bring the unrecognized breakaway Republic of South Ossetia -- where he was born -- back under the control of the Georgian government. "Jane's Defence Weekly" quoted Okruashvili as saying while in Washington last month that one of his top priorities is to enlist Washington's help in "resolving" the South Ossetian conflict. Addressing reservists on New Year's Eve 2004, Okruashvili vowed that Tbilisi would restore its hegemony over one of its two breakaway lost territories in 2005 "with your help," Caucasus Press reported on 3 January. Days later, he said that Georgia will deploy its armed forces "as it sees fit" to resolve internal conflicts.

In addition to upping manpower, Georgia has greatly increased its defense spending, from 79 million laris ($43 million) in 2004 to 317 million laris in 2005, according to a Eurasia View analysis of 7 April. True, that increase could be explained away by the requirement that countries aspiring to NATO membership, as Georgia does, spend no less than 2 percent of GDP on defense. But Eurasia View also quoted unnamed Western observers as saying that Okruashvili is spending without any advance planning or conducting any feasibility studies: "There is no acquisition or procurement process." In a parliamentary debate in mid-May on the optimum use of additional budget funds, opposition Deputy Koka Guntsadze alleged that Okruashvili is accountable to no one for the money he spends, an accusation that Giga Bokeria of the pro-government Majority rejected, according to the daily "Rezonansi" on 13 May.

The weaponry that Okruashvili has purchased reportedly includes armored personnel carriers, self-propelled artillery, helicopters, and T-72 tanks, according to Eurasia View. The latter three items in particular call into question earlier statements by President Mikheil Saakashvili (in September 2004) and Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania (in February 2004) that Georgia has no aggressive intentions and plans to strengthen its armed forces exclusively for defensive purposes, to repel any external invasion. On 6 November, Caucasus Press quoted Saakashvili as saying Georgia's defensive capacity was not being augmented in anticipation of an attack by Russia. Saakashvili did not, however, specify which of Georgia's other neighbors is perceived as a potential threat. The daily "24 saati" on 5 July quoted Estonian defense expert Harri Tiido as questioning why Georgia is purchasing such huge quantities of weaponry.

Not only is an invasion of Georgian territory a remote possibility, but the weapons Okruashvili is reportedly acquiring are ideally suited for an offensive against the Ossetians. Moreover, between mid-June and mid-July, some 800 Georgian troops conducted large-scale tank exercises using some 170 battle tanks, Caucasus Press reported. (One year ago, Georgia had only 76 T-55 and T-72 tanks.) The objective of the one-month exercise, according to Armed Forces Chief of General Staff Colonel General Levan Nikoleishvili, was to give troops "greater experience" in handling such weapons, according to on 18 July. In the course of the maneuvers, Okruashvili and Nikoleishvili personally engaged in an impromptu tank race that Okruashvili won, Caucasus Press reported on 5 July.

The recent tank exercises might reflect nothing more sinister than Georgian national pride in having succeeded, with generous assistance from the United States, Turkey, and other allies, in transforming the rag-tag paramilitary National Guard that emerged in the wake of the collapse of the USSR into a well-trained, -disciplined, and -equipped fighting force that will help Georgia qualify for NATO membership. If, however, Tbilisi does launch an offensive against South Ossetia, it risks provoking a counterstrike by Russia to "protect" the local Ossetian population, almost all of whom are by now technically Russian citizens. And if Tbilisi deploys graduates of the Train and Equip program during that offensive in blatant violation of assurances given to Washington that those troops will not be mobilized in any attempt to restore Georgia's territorial integrity, it could risk a temporary cooling of relations with the United States. But even if Georgia does not resort to military force to bring its breakaway republics back under the control of the central authorities, its ongoing vigorous militarization program could serve to undermine the precarious balance of power in the South Caucasus. (Liz Fuller and Richard Giragosian)

CHIEF OF EU JUDICIAL MISSION LEAVES GEORGIA WITH MIXED FEELINGS. The EU last week drew a line under its "rule of law mission" to Georgia, the first of its kind on the territory of the former Soviet Union. In seven months, a small team of EU legal experts assisted the Georgian government in putting together a blueprint for far-reaching reform of the criminal justice system which -- if implemented -- should bring it up to international standards. The EU team was led by Sylvie Pantz, a veteran French judge who has worked in Kosova, Bosnia and at the former Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Speaking with an RFE/RL correspondent in Brussels on 20 July, Pantz praised the "close cooperation" the Georgian government gave her mission, which took just seven months instead of the envisaged 12 months to complete its task. At the same time, she said the overall situation in the country, which she repeatedly described as "unstable," did not help matters. Nor did the demands of the "heavy" Brussels bureaucracy help Pantz in her task.

Pantz cautioned that the 27-page reform blueprint she helped the Georgian government produce will not change the country overnight. She said she is "targeting the future," and does not expect any immediate results from the work of the mission, officially designated "EUJUST Themis."

Pantz appeared concerned that the independence of Georgian judges is still contested by political authorities on a daily basis: "It is not because EUJUST Themis was in Georgia that the independence of the judiciary all of a sudden has been ensured. Let's give you that example that every day, we heard and we've been informed about judges being asked to resign. And we could not [do anything about that]. I can say that, [however], that our mere presence -- us [means] EUJUST Themis -- in Georgia slowed down any kind of this negative reaction that they had against judges."

The European Commission has a permanent office in Tbilisi, but officials say it seeks no role in such disputes. Pantz, however, left no doubt that she prefers a much more hands-on approach. She said on the one occasion she did become involved in the daily affairs of the Georgian judicial system, she achieved results: "We were very anxious when we heard that three, four judges of the Supreme Court had been asked to resign. So, what I initiated outside [my official] mission [was that] I put round the table the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the [European Commission] delegation, Americans -- USAID and the [U.S. Department of Justice -- and all together we went to see the president of the Supreme Court of Georgia in order, in order to [say] collectively that it was not the right way to proceed. Since then, no more judges have been asked to resign at the level of the Supreme Court."

Pantz said judges must not be fired without a "transparent and open procedure." The sacking of judges in Georgia appears to be politically motivated -- punishment, in Pantz's words, "for not taking the right decisions."

Pantz said she hopes that when she finally leaves Georgia in mid-September, the government there will know "what the proper reaction should be" in such situations. She says that in a positive sign, the government has agreed to staff at least half of the highest judicial supervisory bodies with judges.

Pantz would not be drawn on the longer-term outlook for the Georgian criminal justice system. She said there is "no guarantee" that the government won't simply put the new reform strategy "in a drawer." Pantz noted that implementation takes time and political will. She said the Georgian government has already shown considerable political will by developing the reform strategy in the first place. But, she warned, there is still too much political instability in the country: "I cannot say [that], you know that Georgia is in my point of view quite an unstable country still, with all these problems in South Ossetia, in Abkhazia. So, that's why we deemed it very important and relevant that senior experts should stay to ensure the follow-up [of the outgoing mission] for at least six months."

Pantz said two of her experts will stay behind and work out of the office of the EU special representative for the South Caucasus, Heikki Talvitie. They will monitor the implementation of the reforms, assist Georgian authorities, and keep EU member states informed of developments on the ground. The mandate of the follow-up mission will be reviewed in February. At the same time, the special representative's mandate, currently renewed every six months, should also be reviewed and extended to a year at a time. Pantz hinted that another, smaller EU legal mission may then also be launched.

In conclusion, Pantz said she believes the EU "rule of law mission" is an excellent tool in helping other "post-crisis" countries, such as Moldova and Ukraine, reform their criminal justice systems. (Ahto Lobjakas)

WILL THE REAL CLOSET LIBERALS PLEASE STAND UP? Ever since Ilham Aliyev formally succeeded his father Heidar as Azerbaijan's president in October 2003, there have been persistent rumors of a split within the team of top officials he inherited. That faultline purportedly divides the "conservatives," who allegedly have a political and economic interest in preserving the status quo and delaying, if not preventing outright, further democratization, and the "liberals," who support such changes, apparently not viewing them as a threat as the "conservatives" do.

Determining with any degree of certainty who belongs in which political camp is, however, problematic: the Azerbaijani press is full of speculation on that issue, much of it based on conjecture or purely circumstantial evidence. Nor is it 100 percent clear whether Aliyev himself, for all his stated commitment to democratization, sides unequivocally with the reformist camp, or whether he is being skillfully manipulated by the conservatives.

Speaking at a press conference in Baku in April, Andreas Gross, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe rapporteur for Azerbaijan, who has visited Azerbaijan 19 times over the past three years and met on numerous occasions with the president, characterized Ilham Aliyev as being more democratic than his late father and predecessor, and less conservative than his entourage. That group of officials, according to Gross, is split between those who are ready to help Aliyev implement his stated plans to create a more democratic system and those who seek to put the brake on such changes. Gross further implied that to divide the Azerbaijani leadership into "reformers" and "conservatives" is simplistic, and that the various rival factions are more numerous. He also confessed that he still has no clear idea of who belongs to which faction (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 6 May 2005).

On 14 June, the website posted extensive interviews with two influential Aliyev supporters, both of whom offered their diagnosis of the problems Azerbaijan currently faces and offered their vision of what type of political system could address those problems most effectively. In the first interview, parliament deputy Anar Mamedkhanov, who according to that website was one of the most committed supporters of the idea of Ilham Aliyev succeeding his father, attributed the perception that Aliyev has failed to break with the previous "reactionary" administration to what he termed the "information vacuum" surrounding the president. Mamedkhanov also sought to refute the widely held conviction that the present Azerbaijani leadership will rig the outcome of the 6 November parliamentary ballot if need be in order to retain power. (Gross himself alluded to that possibility at his April press conference, saying "one must bear in mind that the elite in Azerbaijan is extremely wealthy. You don't surely think that it will simply disintegrate? If they feel that they could be stripped of power, they may offer armed resistance.")

Mamedkhanov, however, affirmed that he is "not convinced that the old guard are formulating pernicious plans and seek to hinder" the reform process. He explained the slow pace of those reforms to the entrenched "slavish mindset" and to Azerbaijanis' collective "conservatism." Mamedkhanov agreed with his interviewer's suggestion that a new concept of social-political reform is needed, beginning with the "creation of liberal institutions that will preserve their neutrality and not sell themselves to one political force or another." More important, Mamedkhanov insisted that President Aliyev himself "understands perfectly the current situation, and the fact that he does so is my sole source of optimism for the future of our country." But unfortunately, Mamedkhanov continued, the president's entourage does not include people who could interpret and "sell" his ideas to the Azerbaijani people in an acceptable format.

Mamedkhanov then explained that the president's primary objective is to strengthen Azerbaijan's position as regional economic leader; he argued that this can be done only by political means, including ensuring free, fair, and democratic elections.

But other statements Mamedkhanov made cast a certain doubt on the depth of Aliyev's commitment to the process of democratization. Specifically, he revealed that Aliyev devotes between 75-80 percent of his time to economic issues. That suggests that domestic politics is almost exclusively the preserve of other, more experienced officials, and that it is they, rather than Aliyev himself, who are the main players in the covert battle that will decide the country's future political orientation.

What's more, it appears that that battle may not be only, as Mamedkhanov implied, between the "conservatives" and "liberals," but also between an unequivocally pro-European faction and one that would prefer a model that takes into account what political scientist Rovshan Mustafaev, in the second interview, termed " the Islamic orientation of our people." Mustafaev argued that the main problem facing Azerbaijan is that the old system of government is broken, but despite all efforts, no one has yet succeeded in creating a new one. He said the new generation is not totally enamored of the Western democratic model, but nonetheless wants a "contemporary model of statehood." He argued that the stereotyped division of the politicians into pro-government and opposition is specious, and it would be more accurate to differentiate between those "who think and act normally and responsibly," and those who are motivated by purely selfish and egocentric considerations.

Mustafaev declared that "we do not have the right to create a parliament that is less progressive than the Roman Senate." At the same time, he argued that the impetus for political change should come from the top, with the aim of forestalling pressure, or possibly even intervention, by the Council of Europe. "Why do we need the present presidential administration if the most crucial decisions are being taken by European parliamentarians?" he asked rhetorically. Mustafaev has consistently rejected the Council of Europe's criteria for identifying political prisoners, and he denies that any Azerbaijanis fall into that category.

To deflect such external pressure, Mustafev advocated creating an effective mechanism for governing the country and selecting new cadres on the basis of their patriotism and readiness to fulfill their civic duty. But he defined the ultimate aim not as "democratization," but the creation of what he termed a "normal, morally healthy situation" and the emergence of a new, socially-engaged political force that could mobilize the support of all those who care about the country's future. In that context, Mustafaev referred to President Aliyev as a "sophisticated and liberal" person who is equal to the challenges he faces and capable of responding appropriately and who would hail the emergence of such a force.

While Mamedkhanov and Mustafaev both clearly consider themselves part of the new reformist elite concentrated around the president and which hopes to spearhead reform, neither makes a direct connection between the emergence of that new force for change and the 6 November presidential ballot. Most observers anticipate that even in a fair ballot, candidates directly representing the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP), together with nominal independents with close ties to the present leadership, will win an overall majority of the 125 seats. Turan on 21 July quoted U.S. Ambassador to Baku Reno Harnish as saying that Washington is conducting talks with both the authorities and opposition with the aim of promoting what he termed "a new, evolutionary model of political change" for Azerbaijan. Such a model could entail a parliament in which the opposition holds up to one-third of the mandates, and in which those opposition deputies could work together with the more liberal YAP parliamentarians to implement gradually President Aliyev's agenda for liberalization without triggering the counterreaction by entrenched conservative elements that Gross fears. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "The key to a Karabakh settlement is direct negotiations between Stepanakert and Baku, and it is Stepanakert that can bear responsibility for the issue of controlled territories and return of refugees." -- Armen Melikian, foreign minister of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, in an interview published in "Azg" on 14 July.

"Your army is our army. Your possibilities are our possibilities." -- Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul, meeting in Baku on 20 July with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (quoted by ITAR-TASS).