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Georgia: Civic Groups Criticize Defense Secretiveness, Militarization

When Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili reshuffled the country's security apparatus in December, he entrusted his new civilian defense minister, Irakli Okruashvili, with the task of speeding the pace of reforms needed to improve the effectiveness of the national armed forces. Okruashvili has pledged to fulfill his mission by 2006. Opposition and civic rights groups, however, are questioning the defense minister methods for achieving his goal and the purpose of what they denounce as Georgia's "militarization."

Prague, 12 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Davit Gamkrelidze, the head of Georgia's opposition New Rightists party, last week (April 6) accused Okruashvili of turning the national armed forces into a "private army."

Speaking to journalists in Tbilisi, Gamkrelidze complained that taxpayers and opposition lawmakers were being kept in the dark about how the defense budget is being spent. He also condemned the lack of transparency surrounding the Army Development Fund.

The fund was set up shortly after the 2003 change of political regime. It aimed to collect donations needed to equip Georgia's depleted military. The government says contributions come from "patriots living both in the country and abroad."
Confronted with growing criticism, authorities on 10 April for the first time shed some light on the Army Development Fund.

But Gamkrelidze and other critics say they are suspicious about many of the contributions. They believe much of the money in the fund comes either from profits from smuggling activities, or from former state officials eager to clear themselves of corruption charges.

Paata Zakareishvili works for a Tbilisi-based nongovernmental organization known as the Center for Development and Cooperation. He says that opposition leaders are not the only ones questioning the fund's sources.

"This fund totally lacks transparency. We don't know either where the contributions come from, or who is contributing to it. But we have every reason to suspect the money comes from state racketeering -- that the government is blackmailing businessmen who may or may not have been guilty of wrongdoings in the past, and forcing them to make contributions to this fund. What is of particular concern to us is that, by fostering this form of state racketeering, this fund is hampering the economy. The money does not necessarily end up in private pockets, but it is put on a pseudo-budget that is officially designed to procure weapons, God knows how. All these transactions circumvent the law, which says procurement has to go through public tenders," Zakareishvili says.

Confronted with growing criticism, authorities on 10 April for the first time shed some light on the Army Development Fund.

Givi Targamadze, a close ally of Okruashvili who chairs the parliament's defense and security committee, told the Rustavi-2 television station that contributions made since the fund's creation amount to 13.5 million laris (nearly $7.4 million). Targamadze, however, refused to identity the donors.

In comments made to Georgia's Imedi television last week (April 5), Okruashvili admitted that his ministry's budget lacks transparency. Yet, he argued that secrecy is needed to prevent countries that he called "hostile to Georgia" from blocking possible defense deals.

Saakashvili has backed his defense minister, praising him for "building a modern army that is respectful of Georgia's legislation and democratic principles."

Yet not everyone in Georgia agrees with this assessment.

Gamkrelidze last week accused Okruashvili -- a former prosecutor-general and interior minister -- of representing a threat to Georgian democracy.

Zakareishvili says that under Okruashvili's tenure neither the parliament nor civic society can exercise any form of control over the Defense Ministry:

"The [Defense] Ministry has become a closed institution. Civic society has no possibility of monitoring what goes on in there. If soldiers weren't forced to take to the streets to make their grievances public, we wouldn?t know anything about what is going on," said Zakareishvili.

Soon after Okruashvili was appointed defense minister, some 60 so-called Interior Troops -- former Interior Ministry troops now under Defense Ministry command -- left their barracks and marched on Tbilisi to protest their living conditions. Okruashvili's refusal to launch a thorough investigation into the incident prompted Irakli Sesiashvili, then the military ombudsman, to resign.

More recently, the defense minister publicly slammed prosecutors for trying to investigate accusations of mistreatment leveled against an army officer.

Okruashvili's stance has raised eyebrows even in Saakashvili's own party. National Movement lawmaker Giga Bokeria -- a member of the parliament's defense and security committee -- on Thursday cautioned the defense minister against putting himself above the law:

"I am particularly concerned about some of the defense minister's recent statements. I think some of these statements are not only inappropriate, but sometimes even contradict the principles of a state based on the rule of law. With regard to his task of building the armed forces, Mr. Okruashvili enjoys our full political support and no one should obstruct him -- especially such a discredited politician as Mr. Gamkrelidze. However, no one must be allowed to deviate from our general course, which is to build a state founded on the rule of law and a liberal democracy," said Bokeria.

But, for other members of the ruling party, any criticism of the defense minister or military institutions is unacceptable.

Addressing reporters on Friday (April 8), lawmaker Targamadze blamed the parliamentary opposition for allegedly "discrediting" the military.

State Minister Giorgi Baramidze -- himself a former defense minister -- today accused Gamkrelidze of "tarnishing the image of the armed forces."

Tinatin Khidasheli, a member of Georgia's Young Lawyers' Association, says she is increasingly concerned at what she considers the opacity surrounding Georgia's defense policy and military spending.

"The defense budget increases with each month passing. Parliament has just voted to increase the military spending by another 100 million laris (eds: 55 million dollars) [eds: from an original 320 million laris]. No one is accountable before anyone. When we raise this issue, the president and his ministers say it's none of our business and that they will not address this issue," Khidasheli says.

Georgia's 23,000-strong army comprises both professional soldiers and conscripts. In addition, the government has ordered the creation of reserve units, the current strength of which is officially estimated to be 3,000. Cabinet ministers, lawmakers and civil servants are all required to undergo periods of military training in those units.

Khidasheli says Georgia is progressively turning into a military state. "The real problem is not so much the [size of the defense budget] as it is the fact that everything is being done in secrecy, that we are being kept totally in the dark about what's going on in the army. All we hear is endless propaganda. Saakashvili promotes the army every single day. Some of our deputies show up in parliament in camouflage -- which, for me, is unacceptable. They say they're ready to go to war if needed. But what war are they talking about? Nobody knows," Khidasheli says.

For Zakareishvili, however, the answer is clear: He says, "The problem is that we do not have a military doctrine. We still don't know for which purpose, against which potential enemy we are building such an army. This militarization of the country is groundless. My impression is that the army is being prepared for ground operations. The only possible targets for ground operations are Abkhazia and South Ossetia."

Saakashvili has offered repeated assurances that Georgia's territorial integrity will be restored only through peaceful means.

Yet, two of his ministers have recently hinted at the possibility of using force to regain control over the territories lost in the early 1990s.

Okruashvili last week said that by 2006 the army would be in a position to meet the objective set by Saakashvili when he appointed him defense minister -- "to make Georgia look like a real country."

During a heated televised debate with Gamkrelidze the following day, Baramidze cautioned the opposition against voicing criticisms "at a time when the armed forces are about to spill blood in order to defend the country."