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Georgia: Frequent Shake-Ups, Politics Hinder Military Reforms

Reform of the Georgian army will be necessary for the country to join NATO Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has made military reform a high priority of his domestic policy agenda. Experts, however, note little real progress in that direction, notably because of the frequent changes in personnel among the top army leadership in the past 12 months.

Prague, 18 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Army reforms have long been a matter of public debate in NATO-hopeful Georgia.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, corruption, mismanagement, and scarce public funding gradually brought the Georgian armed forces to a state of neglect that critics say outmatched that of any other CIS country.

When he assumed power a year ago, President Mikheil Saakashvili pledged to restore order in the army and implement long-awaited reforms required to bring the army's standards closer to that of NATO.

As part of his ambitious program, Saakashvili vowed to establish civilian control over the military, reduce the size of the armed forces, develop cooperation with the United States and other NATO members, and boost defense spending.

The Georgian president made it mandatory for all government officials to undergo periods of military training in newly created army reserve units. Earlier this month, he joined "Strong Army-United Georgia," a movement set up by members of the ruling party to restore the prestige of the armed forces in society.

Irakli Aladashvili is a military expert for Georgia's "Kviris Palitra" ("The Week's Palette") information weekly. He tells our correspondent that despite Saakashvili's obvious interest for the military, the situation in the 30,000- strong armed forces has not significantly improved.

"Unlike [former] President [Eduard] Shevardnadze, Saakashvili devotes a lot of time to the army. Unlike Shevardnadze, he obviously cares for the military. He pays great attention to the army, not only in his speeches but also in his actions. He's been allotting a lot of money to the army so that it gets on its feet. But, on the other hand, there's something wrong with all the personnel changes [that have taken place recently in the military]," Aladashvili said.

Three defense ministers -- all civilians -- have succeeded one another in the past 12 months.

First came Gela Bezhuashvili, a U.S.-trained lawyer and former deputy defense minister who lost his job after just five months. Bezhuashvili was followed by Giorgi Baramizde, who himself was soon replaced by Irakli Okruashvili, a former prosecutor-general and interior minister, known for his heavy-handed management and loyalty to the president.

When he nominated Okruashvili in mid-December, Saakashvili made it clear that as commander in chief he was unhappy with the pace of reforms under the previous two ministers.

Days later, Okruashvili publicly leveled corruption charges at several top Defense Ministry officials who had been appointed by Baramidze -- a man known for being close to then-Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania.

The controversy that followed was rapidly hushed up. Yet, official denials failed to end widespread suspicion of infighting among the country's top leadership.

Former military ombudsman Irakli Sesiashvili, at the time, told RFE/RL he suspected Okruashvili's outburst was politically motivated:

"Baramidze was Zhvania's man, and I think there is an ongoing struggle between Zhvania's people and Saakashvili's people," Sesiashvili said.

Earlier this week, a new controversy arose -- this time around the army's general staff.

On 15 February, Georgian media reported the defense minister had, six days earlier, demanded that top officers resign.

Okruashvili, who this week returned to Tbilisi from a visit to Germany and Belgium, has not made any public comment yet. Saakashvili remained tightlipped during his two public appearances this week.

Army Chief of Staff Vakhtang Kapanadze on 15 February refused to elaborate on the shake-up that reportedly affects up to 30 people.

"This is part of our domestic house-cleaning and I do not wish to comment on the minister's decision now," Kapanadze said.

Georgia's Novosti-Gruziya news agency on 16 February quoted lawmaker Giga Bokeria -- a leader of the ruling party and a member of the Georgian parliament's defense and security committee -- as saying the army's top generals had in fact resigned of their own choice over disagreements on the pace of military reforms.

Aladashvili of "Kviris Palitra," however, said information he obtained from his contacts at the Defense Ministry show a different picture.

"Late in the evening of Wednesday, 9 February, the defense minister had a very short meeting with the top leadership of the army general staff -- the chief of staff, his deputies, and other senior generals -- and demanded that all of them write him a letter requesting that they be dismissed from the armed forces. That came after he accused them of building up political platforms for themselves and initiating some sort of behind-the-screen political intrigues. I don't know what will eventually happen to them, but I know for certain that they all wrote letters requesting to be dismissed," Aladashvili said.

Under Georgian law, army officers are forbidden to engage in political activities of any sort.

If the information carried by Georgian media is confirmed, that would be the second reshuffle among the general staff since August 2004.

Military experts believe that, whatever the motives behind the shake-ups, their frequency can only hinder the reform process.

Former military ombudsman Sesiashvili, who now works with the nongovernmental "Justice and Liberty" army watchdog group, voiced his concern at a 16 February press briefing in Tbilisi:

"In 2004 more than 800 people -- civilians and non-civilians -- were dismissed from the Defense Ministry alone. During that period, 600 people were hired and none of them was selected from among those who had been dismissed. This is [already] an indicator of instability. On top of that, some of these newly hired people were fired after just three months, before they could even get acquainted with their new job," Sesiashvili said.

Justice and Liberty this week released a report on the situation in the armed forces, one year into Saakashvili's administration.

In it, the independent watchdog says the government has still to elaborate a clear-cut reform strategy that would effectively bring the Georgian army closer to NATO standards. It also criticizes the way defense funds are being spent and the continuing influence exerted by the political leadership on the army.

Military expert Aladashvili agrees with the conclusions contained in this report. He also says that as long as the defense minister, who is a political figure, continues to interfere in purely organizational matters, there can be no real army reforms.

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