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Georgia: Tbilisi Needs Urgent Military Reforms Before NATO Hopes Become Reality

While officially applying for membership in NATO last week, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze admitted that his country must overcome many difficulties before it can reasonably hope to join the alliance. The Georgian leader cited economic hardships and two unresolved separatist conflicts as major obstacles to entering NATO. Defense analysts say there is also an urgent need to modernize Georgia's armed forces and put an end to rampant corruption in the military.

Prague, 27 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze announced on 21 November his intentions for Georgia to formally apply for NATO entry, he admitted his country might have a long road to travel before joining the alliance.

Speaking at RFE/RL during the NATO summit in Prague, Shevardnadze said Georgia should first gain economic strength and restore its control over the two breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

He also named military reforms as a key priority for his government. Such reforms have already begun, with the United States helping to modernize the Georgian army in a two-year, $64 million program called Train and Equip. But Shevardnadze said such initiatives were only a start. "[Admission into NATO], of course, will require more than a year or two. But I am sure that it will not take as long as it might have appeared a year ago. The reform of the military is moving forward and has gained momentum with the implementation of the joint Georgian-American Train and Equip program. Reform of law-enforcement agencies and power structures has also begun. Reform of the judiciary has been completed, and particular attention is being given to increasing budget revenues and fighting corruption," Shevardnadze said.

A report released on 28 August by the Berlin-based Transparency International, a nongovernmental organization specializing in combating corruption, ranked Georgia, together with Ukraine and Vietnam, 85th out of 102 countries in terms of perceived corruption.

It is an endemic social problem that has not spared Georgia's armed forces. Reports say corruption in the army runs all the way to the top echelons, with generals skimming money from budget funds while poorly equipped soldiers are left hungry and living in unsanitary conditions.

Although Shevardnadze two years ago pledged to put an end to the country's rampant corruption, including in the armed forces, critics say almost nothing has changed.

Irakli Aladashvili works for the Tbilisi-based "Kviris Palitra" independent weekly. An expert on military affairs, Aladashvili said repeated attempts to expose widespread corruption in the Defense and Interior ministries have yet to yield any substantial results. "Attempts are being made [to expose corruption in the armed forces], but nothing comes out of them. I myself am a journalist and have been writing for 10 years now about corruption and everything else. Yet, I know that whether one writes [about corruption] or not it doesn't make any difference presently. The solution is elsewhere," Aladashvili said.

The situation in Georgia's armed forces is not as dramatic as in neighboring Azerbaijan where infectious diseases, malnutrition, suicides, bullying, and neglect are said to be responsible for nearly 5,000 deaths in the military since the 1994 cease-fire with Armenia.

But the situation in Georgia is still grim. Reports suggest equipment, fuel, food supplies, and drugs meant for Georgian privates are being stolen by unscrupulous officers and noncommissioned officers who then sell them on the black market.

As in Azerbaijan, poor living standards have sometimes pushed soldiers and officers to take radical steps.

On 25 May 2001, hundreds of national guardsmen seized a base of Interior Ministry troops in Mukhrovani, near Tbilisi, to protest poor conditions. The mutineers surrendered a few days later without bloodshed.

On 19 July of this year, more than 100 officers and soldiers of a new U.S.-trained elite battalion handed in their resignation in a bid to raise public awareness about the financial and material destitution of Georgia's armed forces.

While concluding a weeklong inspection tour of Georgian troops last May, U.S. official Otar Shalikashvili, an adviser to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, said their actual situation was considerably worse than was officially reported in Tbilisi.

Aladashvili said that when Moscow was forced to vacate some of its military installations after Georgia gained independence in 1991, Russian soldiers dissembled most of the heavy weaponry and equipment they were not allowed to take with them. What was left was sold for scrap, while unused ammunition was exported to third countries, to the profit of a handful of defense officials.

After Russian warplanes carried out a series of bombing raids on Georgian territory in pursuit of Chechen fighters, and Moscow on 11 September threatened Tbilisi with air strikes against alleged separatist training camps located in the Pankisi Gorge, Georgia's Defense Ministry was forced to admit that it lacked proper antiaircraft defense systems because its equipment had been allowed to deteriorate.

Aladashvili said corruption has had a dramatic impact on the Georgian Army's efficiency. "We are currently experiencing serious problems with regard to fighting capabilities, because the [government and] Shevardnadze have long closed their eyes to what was going on around them. However, [we] should be 'thankful' -- quote, unquote -- to those Russian pilots for bombing us, because all of a sudden the [government] got interested in what has happened to our antiaircraft defense and to other [defense] sectors," Aladashvili said.

While admitting that funds allocated to the armed forces may be partially embezzled, defense analysts note that the cash-starved government is unable to meet the army's demands regardless.

In an interview given to Georgian state television in the aftermath of last year's Mukhrovani mutiny, Defense Minister David Tevzadze complained that his country had "no defense budget." His statement was subsequently sustained by the decision to cancel a military parade originally designed to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Georgia's independence.

Reports say Georgia's regular army, which officially claims some 20,000 troops, is the most poorly funded among the former Soviet republics. This year's defense budget amounts to 38.5 million laris ($18 million), compared to $120 million in Azerbaijan, with an estimated army of 77,000 men.

Tevzadze has repeatedly said that he would need at least 71 million laris simply to maintain the army at its current level.

But defense funds, already meager, rarely make it to the army in full. The Defense Ministry claims an 11 million-lari shortfall in funding since the beginning of this year has forced it to cancel its participation in a number of military exercises held within the framework of NATO's Partnership for Peace program.

Last month, the Georgian parliament's Defense Affairs Committee said an overall shortfall in funding for all armed forces, including Interior Ministry troops, border guards, and units subordinated to the State Security Ministry, amounted to some 111 million laris.

To compensate for the chronic lack of funds, legislators earlier this year passed a bill allowing prospective conscripts to delay their enlistment in the army by one year in return for 200 laris.

Aladashvili said this dispensation system may help the Defense Ministry compensate for the lack of funding, but only partially. "Of these 200 laris, 80 percent goes to the Defense Ministry while the remaining 20 percent goes directly to the state budget. This law came into force this summer, but already the Interior Ministry and the border-guard administration have raised objections because the money will go only to the Defense Ministry, although they, too, have conscripts serving in their ranks. The Defense Ministry expects to raise 1 million laris this year thanks to this system. As far as I know, so far 600 young men have paid 200 laris [to obtain a delay]," Aladashvili said.

To add to the army's troubles, the Finance Ministry earlier this month turned down a Defense Ministry request for emergency funding.

Finance Minister Mirian Gogiashvili defended his decision by saying that there was no immediate threat of a military attack by Russia or any other country. He also said his administration would reexamine the army's demands only when state revenues are increased, a scenario that analysts deem unlikely, given the large budget deficit expected this year.

Aladashvili believes only enhanced cooperation with the West will help create a disciplined and financially transparent army in Georgia.

Officially launched last spring, the U.S.-sponsored Train and Equip program is designed to help Georgia set up four elite battalions of 400 men each that should provide the backbone of its future regular army. Washington's NATO allies Turkey, Germany, France, and Great Britain have also expressed their willingness to help train and equip Georgia's armed forces.

"I hope this program will work. Otherwise we should expect nothing good from the Georgian Army," Aladashvili said.