Controversial former Penitentiary Department head Bacho Akhalya, whose appointment last week as Georgian defense minister elicited a wide range of reactions, has embarked upon his new duties and made public the broad outlines of his agenda. The ministry's "unchanged and clear objective," in Akhalaya's words, encompasses three basic priorities: modernization, peace, and integration with NATO.
None of the six politicians named to head the Defense Ministry since the Rose Revolution of November 2003 had enough time to formulate a clear action plan and then implement it. Of the six men who have succeeded one another as defense minister over the past six years, David Kezerashvili served longest -- for two years.
Akhalaya, who is the seventh post-Rose Revolution defense minister, embarks on his duties under worse conditions than any of his predecessors. Even though he clearly has the full trust and support of President Mikheil Saakashvili, society at large mistrusts him in light of accusations by opposition politicians and human rights groups that as head of the Penitentiary Department, he presided over death squads subordinate to the Interior Ministry that carried out extrajudicial killings.
Despite economic problems, the military received 900 million laris ($533.8 million) in funding in 2009. That is no small sum for Georgia's 25,000 servicemen, assuming defense spending remains at that level next year, as Saakashvili has promised.
But let's take a closer look at the three ministry priorities Akhalaya has outlined. First, there is "peace."
"Peace is why we are trying to strengthen our defense capabilities," Akhalaya explained at his first press conference. "After we win the peace, we must strengthen our defense capability in order to preserve that peace."
But for the defense establishment, "peace" is truly a new, rather abstract, and vague priority. If it means resolving the problem of defense and ensuring the country's defense capability, that is perfectly understandable.
But peace is also a political line that the country's parliament and government defines and implements. The army either engages in combat or is preparing for war. If, therefore, the army's chief priority is to maintain peace in a partly occupied country, that means imposing on the army the duty to enforce peace either with the means at its disposal or by resorting to military force, which seems more likely now that Akhalaya's iron hand controls the ministry.
And we cannot rule out that "peace" in this context also means restoring peace within the armed forces, where resentment toward the ruling regime has increased as a result of endless personnel reshuffles and the military defeat of August 2008.
While prior to the war with Russia last summer the president and the leadership as a whole used the army -- one of their most successful projects -- as one component of a PR campaign, serious problems have emerged since the war.
"Today President Saakashvili is even a bit afraid of the army," says security expert Irakli Sesiashvili, "because there is a strong feeling of protest among servicemen against the defeat that they suffered. So I think the decision [to name Akhalaya as minister] was linked to the need to establish strict political control."
Modernizing Not Just Hardware
The minister's second stated priority is less vague but much more difficult to implement. "Modernization means Georgia's whole army should be even better armed and the level of education should be even higher," Akhalaya said. "This means we should have more educated, more motivated, and better-armed officers and servicemen."
The Georgian armed forces indeed desperately need arms, education, and motivation -- in the form of better conditions and remuneration. Last year's five-day war inflicted great material and human losses on the Georgian armed forces. Addressing a parliament commission last fall, then-Defense Minister Davit Kezerashvili estimated the financial damage the armed forces suffered as a result of the war at 400 million laris, or almost half the annual defense budget.
The military education system, especially the newly created National Defense Academy, is in a lamentable state. It falls short of present-day requirements both materially and in terms of the standard of training it provides.
But across-the-board modernization requires additional resources, and the defense budget will not be raised next year. And it looks as though Georgia will not receive from the United States the promised $100 million in aid for military purposes, which the Pentagon has sent back to the State Department to be used for "humanitarian purposes."
The NATO Question
The only remaining solution is belt-tightening and mobilizing internal resources to acquire the most urgently needed hardware and weaponry, which -- if indeed this proves possible -- creates the next problem: what specific hardware to buy and from which country.
If we take into account the lessons of the Russian-Georgian war, it is obvious that at this juncture the Georgian Army needs to replenish its stock of missile-defense systems and acquire at least two fighter aircraft. We had the chance to do that, but didn't act in time, says military expert Sesiashvili. "Today it is virtually impossible to purchase fighter aircraft," because Russia is pressuring potential vendors not to sell them to Tbilisi.
Like peace, joining NATO, which the new defense minister declared his third priority, is the task of the entire state apparatus. It would be naive to think that Georgia will be welcomed into the NATO club solely on the basis of the high level of modernization of its armed forces. The main criteria for membership of the alliance are democracy, respect for human rights, economic stability, and resolving conflicts both within the country and on its borders.
The army's share of responsibility for achieving this lies in attaining NATO military standards both at the command level and that of subunits, which in turn means that military units must meet NATO standards for complete interoperability.
In short, as Akhalaya put it, the Georgian Army must become "a military force that will not be a burden on NATO." If that can be achieved, then personal shortcomings, such as that neither the new defense minister nor Chief of the General Staff Devi Chankotadze has ever completed a course of study at a higher military academy in any NATO member country, will no longer loom so large.