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Monday 20 February 2017

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An Update On Georgia's Military Reform

  • Liz Fuller
Georgian Defense Minister Levan Izoria (file photo)

Georgian Defense Minister Levan Izoria (file photo)

The spring draft got under way in Georgia this week under new guidelines intended to ensure that the country's armed forces conform as closely as possible to NATO standards -- even though it has little chance of being invited to join the alliance in the foreseeable future.

The spring draft got under way in Georgia this week under new guidelines intended to ensure that the country's armed forces conform as closely as possible to NATO standards -- even though it has little chance of being invited to join the alliance in the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, in line with staff cuts announced by Defense Minister Levan Izoria last fall, the ministry has dismissed a total of 2,100 personnel, most of them civilians.

One of Izoria's first moves following his appointment in August 2016 was to reverse the decision by his predecessor, Tina Khidasheli, to abolish conscription into the armed forces as of January 2017, but not other agencies, such as the Special State Protection Service and the Interior Ministry.

Under the new guidelines, the length of military service has been cut from 15 to 12 months. All conscripts, not only those assigned to the army, will undergo three months of "comprehensive" combat training. \

That combat training will continue during the following nine months, during which conscripts will "support the professional army" in its daily duties, including by participating in maneuvers.

Conscripts will be allowed weekends off and will receive "an improved social benefits package."

Financial Considerations

Izoria has admitted that the primary reason for reversing Khidasheli's abolition of conscription is financial, given that the cost of maintaining a professional force comprising only contract servicemen costs at least twice as much.

Nika Chitadze, who heads the Security and International Relations Research Institute, has predicted that the decision to bring back the draft will trigger a corresponding increase in the number of young men seeking to avoid it. That hypothesis is tenuous, however. An opinion poll conducted in late November by InterpressNews registered 69.5 percent approval.

Financial considerations were similarly behind Izoria's decision to reduce Defense Ministry personnel by some 10 percent. (According to Chief of General Staff Vladimir Chachibaia, salaries and administrative costs account for 67 percent of the ministry's budget.)

'Upside-Down Triangle'

Initially, Izoria said the downsizing would affect only civilian personnel and not the armed forces.

He noted that the firing of 10 advisers and deputy defense ministers alone would save almost 390,000 laris ($147,732) annually.

But Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili advocated a different approach, noting that "our Defense Ministry resembles an upside-down triangle, we have far more senior officers than we should have," and that Georgia's Western partners, including NATO, have for the past decade urged that the problem be addressed.

As of January 30, 2,100 Defense Ministry personnel had been dismissed, of whom 1,750 were civilians. Of the military personnel affected, 217 were officers (166 of them colonels) and 123 sergeants. Together they were paid a total of some $2 million in compensation.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
Vasil Maghlaperidze cited low audience figures and said that the suspension of programming was necessary in order "to create the financial and elementary technical-material base" that the broadcaster, unlike other TV stations, does not have and without which, he argued, it will prove unable to fulfill its purpose.

Vasil Maghlaperidze cited low audience figures and said that the suspension of programming was necessary in order "to create the financial and elementary technical-material base" that the broadcaster, unlike other TV stations, does not have and without which, he argued, it will prove unable to fulfill its purpose.

Just one month after his election as director-general of the Georgian Public Broadcaster, Vasil Maghlaperidze has announced an ambitious three-year program of modernization and reform intended to raise its negligible audience share. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)

Just one month after his election as director-general of the Georgian Public Broadcaster, Vasil Maghlaperidze has announced an ambitious three-year (2017-19) program of modernization and reform intended to raise its negligible audience share. Those measures will, however, initially necessitate dismissing an unspecified number of staff and suspending for 11 months all TV and radio programs, apart from newscasts.

Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili has implicitly endorsed those plans on the grounds that the broadcaster has received "millions and millions of laris" from the public purse. "We are not prepared to put up with a product that is uninteresting and old-fashioned" in return, he said.

Of the country's seven most-watched TV channels, the Georgian Public Broadcaster's two channels currently have the smallest audiences.

But while conceding the need for modernization of its facilities and equipment and more effective management, nongovernmental organizations and several members of the broadcaster's oversight board have expressed concern over the planned suspension of most programming for almost one year.

They question whether the suspension of talk shows during the ongoing discussion of planned constitutional amendments and in the run-up to local elections due in the fall of 2017 can be reconciled with the broadcaster's legal obligations to provide objective and in-depth coverage of political developments. The extraparliamentary Free Democrats said the planned shutdown "endangers free speech" and was intended to "silence critical voices."

Maghlaperidze was elected to parliament in 1999 as a candidate for then-Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze's Union of Citizens of Georgia. After the Rose Revolution of November 2003, which swept Shevardnadze from power, he served from 2005-08 as governor of the Mtshkheta-Mtianeti district north of Tbilisi under Shevardnadze's successor, Mikheil Saakashvili.

Most recently, he worked for the private GDS TV station, which is owned by the family of Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose Georgian Dream–Democratic Georgia party defeated Saakashvili's United National Movement in the parliamentary elections of 2012 and 2016.

Maghlaperidze was elected director-general of the Georgian Public Broadcaster in early January from a short list of five candidates. He did not at that time make any mention of the planned reforms, which he unveiled at a press conference on February 6.

Announcing the reform plans, Maghlaperidze cited low audience figures and said that the suspension of programming was necessary in order "to create the financial and elementary technical-material base" that the broadcaster, unlike other TV stations, does not have and without which, he argued, it will prove unable to fulfill its purpose.

That statement raises the question, subsequently posed by several commentators, of how the 40 million laris ($15.18 million at current exchange rates) the broadcaster has received annually over the past decade was spent. Last year, just 3 percent of the budget was spent on technology, 60 percent on salaries and administrative expenses, and the remainder for unspecified other purposes. Meanwhile, valuable archive footage is being lost as there is allegedly no money for digitalization.

Maghlaperidze initially said he welcomed criticism of his proposals and alternative suggestions and would gladly step down as director-general if an alternative plan was advanced that would avoid the need to suspend programming. But in an interview with the weekly Kviris Palitra, Maghlaperidze dismissed criticism of his plans as unfounded and implied that such criticism originated with unnamed employees who seek at all costs to preserve their monopoly over decisions concerning programming. He said his sole objective was to make the broadcaster an effective and competitive TV channel and to strip persons he did not name of the opportunity to plunder its financial resources.

Maghlaperidze further claimed that his views on the need for reform coincided with those of the broadcaster's previous management. Maghlaperidze's predecessor, Giorgi Baratashvili, stepped down in November, two years before the end of his term.

At least two members of the broadcaster's eight-person board of trustees have openly criticized Maghlaperidze's plans. Sulkhan Saladze of the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association dismissed them as "totally unacceptable in [their] current form" and said he would not support them.

In January, Saladze had voted against Maghlaperidze's candidacy as "the worst possible choice" for the post of director-general and one that would "call into question the objectivity and independence of the Public Broadcaster." He described Maghlaperidze as "not politically neutral."

Misgivings about the impact of the suspension of programming by the Public Broadcaster in the run-up to the local elections are understandable in light of the planned merger into a single media holding of the hitherto independent TV stations Maestro and Imedi and the Ivanishvili family's GDS. All three reportedly espouse the same editorial policy, avoiding criticism of the ruling GD-DG.

Meanwhile, Georgia's Supreme Court has still not handed down a final ruling in the protracted dispute over the ownership of the TV station Rustavi-2, which unequivocally backs Saakashvili's now divided United National Movement.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

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About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.

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