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Georgia: What's Behind Defense Minister's Fraud Charges?

The Georgian president is not satisfied with the pace of defense reforms When he acceded to power nearly a year ago, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili pledged to improve his country's defense capabilities and to modernize its armed forces with a view toward integrating with NATO. The Georgian leader has been praising his administration for achieving substantial results in that direction, while also pressing for more speedy reforms. Yet, Georgia's new defense minister claims that, nearly 14 months after the so-called Rose Revolution that toppled President Eduard Shevardnadze, fraud and corruption continue to undermine the army.

Prague, 6 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In remarks broadcast on Georgia's main television channels, Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili on 4 January identified by name four serving and former high-ranking defense officials whom he accused of fraud and blamed for the "alarming situation" he said prevails in the armed forces.

"I want to see these people in jail within a month," Okruashvili said.

Okruashvili charged the officials with diverting funds designed to feed and equip servicemen. He also accused them of conspiring with private construction firms to steal money allotted to renovation projects.

A former prosecutor-general and interior minister, Okruashvili took over from Giorgi Baramidze as defense minister three weeks ago, following a government shake-up ordered by President Mikheil Saakashvili.

As prosecutor-general, Okruashvili initiated the controversial anticorruption campaign that threw many former government officials into prison after Saakashvili's election. As interior minister, he oversaw last summer's antismuggling military operation that nearly revived a 12-year-old war with the secessionist republic of South Ossetia.
"More has been done in the defense sector this past year than in the previous 12 years. Yet, I, as commander in chief of the armed forces, am not satisfied with the pace of reforms." -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili

Okruashvili has apparently decided to maintain his reputation for firmness in his new position.

Soon after he was appointed, more than 60 soldiers of the Defense Ministry's interior troops deserted their barracks in Mukhrovani and marched on Tbilisi to protest their living conditions. Okruashvili's insistence that the deserters be punished without an independent probe prompted military ombudsman Irakli Sesiashvili to resign.

Okruashvili on 4 January suggested that the defense officials he identified by name will not be the only ones to face sanctions.

"These people have brought the Georgian Army into a state [of depletion] that is worse than before the '[Rose] Revolution.' For this reason also, many other people will be sacked. Not only will they be sacked, but also their relatives will have to use the money they have [illegally] acquired to send them parcels when they are in jail," Okruashvili said.

Former Deputy Defense Minister Paata Gaprindashvili, who resigned in the wake of last month's reshuffle, is one of the four officials singled out by Okruashvili. In an interview yesterday with the "Imedi" television channel, Gaprindashvili described the accusations of corruption just brought against him as "absurd."

Reacting to Okruashvili's statement, both Deputy Prosecutor-General Kakha Koberidze and National Security Council Secretary Gela Bezhuashvili -- a former defense minister -- cautioned against leveling corruption charges at any individuals until an official investigation is launched.

Baramidze -- now a state minister in charge of Georgia's European integration -- on 4 January blamed his successor for voicing accusations "based on assumptions, not facts."

Saakashvili has pledged to combat corruption in the military and make the best possible use of an ongoing U.S. military assistance program to bring the armed forces in line with NATO standards.

His assessment of the situation in the army seems to contradict that of Okruashvili.

Saakashvili last month justified his decision to appoint a new defense minister by saying the move was necessary to accelerate reforms required to enter NATO -- a goal he hopes to achieve by 2007. Still, he praised his administration for improving the military.

"More has been done in the defense sector this past year than in the previous 12 years. Yet, I, as commander in chief of the armed forces, am not satisfied with the pace of reforms. We can do more, and we need to carry out more intensive work," Saakashvili said.

Irakli Aladashvili is a defense analyst for the "Kviris Palitra" independent weekly. In comments made to RFE/RL's Georgian Service, he said he doubts Okruashvili's outburst signals a genuine willingness to tackle endemic corruption in the army.

"I don't believe [in what Okruashvili said]. I would have believed in it if he had mentioned, say, the investigation launched by the army's inspector general into the [recent] stealing of 40 to 60 tons of gasoline. My impression is that, to a certain extent, his statement is a public relations operation," Aladashvili said.

Former military ombudsman Sesiashvili believes Okruashvili's statement is "politically motivated" and likely reflects infighting between Saakashvili's closest allies and officials who -- like Bezhuashvili and Baramidze -- are closer to Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania.

Sesiashvili, who after his resignation rejoined the nongovernmental Justice and Liberty military watchdog, tells our correspondent that he, too, doubts the new defense minister will take radical steps to eradicate corruption in the military.

"After Saakashvili's accession to power, [Justice and Liberty] monitored the Defense Ministry. In a report called 'Hundred Days Into a New Management,' it exposed more than one case of corruption. But this report triggered no reaction on the part of the Prosecutor-General's Office, which was then headed by Okruashvili. Similarly, our demands that legal proceedings be launched against those Shevardnadze-era generals who effectively 'sold' the Georgian Army went unheeded. Moreover, some of these people continue to hold positions of responsibility," Sesiashvili said.

During a 22 December roundtable discussion organized at RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau to assess the Mukhrovani incident, participants noted that all three successive defense ministers who were appointed in 2004 -- Bezhuashvili, Baramidze, and Okruashvili -- had followed a traditional management pattern, recruiting aides according to their personal allegiances rather than professional skills.

Sesiashvili believes that as long as that system remains in place, corruption is likely to continue to undermine the Georgian defense sector.

In his 4 January televised address, Okruashvili unwittingly added fuel to speculation that cronyism is still rife in the Georgian administration. He said that, when he was interior minister, some "friends" of his obtained a contract to renovate military barracks in the Georgian-held part of South Ossetia.

(RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondent Nino Gelashvili contributed to this report.)