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Saakashvili Announces Yet Another Volte Face In Georgia's Defense Policy

Georgian artillery troops hold a training exercise in Orpalo (file photo)
Georgian artillery troops hold a training exercise in Orpalo (file photo)
After years of progressive increases in military spending and raising the maximum number of armed forces personnel, the Georgian leadership has apparently decided to bite the bullet and comply with NATO's recommendations to downsize. The reservist battalions created with huge fanfare in the early years of Mikheil Saakashvili's presidency are to be scaled back, but at the same time the population -- including school children -- will be trained in the basics of civil defense.

Speaking on January 12 in Batumi, Saakashvili said he considers it imperative to reintroduce military-patriotic education in schools. Such training, which entailed basic physical fitness and learning to assemble and dismantle a Kalashnikov, was an integral part of the Soviet high-school curriculum, and Saakashvili termed its abolition following the demise of the USSR "over-hasty." Saakashvili said "anything can happen" in Georgia, and for that reason all Georgians "should be able to defend their town, their village" as an army of 16,000, or even 30,000 men is not adequate for that purpose.

Georgian Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaya told journalists on January 13 that the new military education courses will be introduced in selected schools at the beginning of the next academic year (September 2010), and later extended to all schools, Caucasus Press reported. He said his ministry is engaged in "intensive consultations" with the Ministry of Education. Saakashvili's spokeswoman Manana Manjgaladze said the same day that retired military officers will be recruited to teach the courses, which will include military history and elements of civil defense.

Military analyst Koba Liklikadze on January 17 described Saakashvili's policy during his six years as commander in chief of Georgia's armed forces as veering from one extreme to the other: abolishing and then recreating, arming and then disarming, drafting and then demobilizing, attacking and then retreating.

Shortly after his election as president in 2004, Saakashvili reversed the decision taken in the late 1990s on the advice of expert Western advisors to slash the size of the armed forces to create a small, mobile army of some 13,000-15,000 men that would meet NATO standards. The armed forces were indeed downsized from approximately 38,000 men to some 20,000 in early 2004, primarily by reducing ancillary, non-combat personnel. But then Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili said while visiting Washington in the spring of 2005 that it might prove necessary to increase the number of active duty personnel, possibly by adding one more brigade to the existing four.

In late 2005, the Georgian parliament passed legislation empowering the Ministry of Defense to raise the total number of military personnel from 22,000 to 26,000 in 2006. One year later, in the fall of 2006, the number was again increased by 1,000 to 27,000. Then in the early fall of 2007, yet another law was passed giving the green light for creation of a fifth brigade, bringing the total number of armed forces personnel to 32,000. The rationale cited for that increase was that Tbilisi had made commitments to providing peacekeeping contingents to serve in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The ceiling was raised yet again in June 2008, to 37,000. Deputy Defense Minister Batu Kutelia said priority in distributing the additional manpower would be given to the navy and airforce. At that juncture, on the eve of the brief August war with Russia, the actual strength of the armed forces was 28,991 servicemen.

That increase in manpower, and the allocation in both 2007 and 2008 of over 1 billion laris ($586 million) in defense spending, did not, unfortunately, translate into a more effective defense capability, as was graphically shown by the armed forces' miserable showing during the August 2009 war.

In the wake of that defeat, last year Saakashvili reversed his earlier decision to abolish the Cadet Corps. Then in December 2009, some 180 colonels and lieutenant colonels were demobilized, purportedly for not meeting physical fitness standards; many of them believe the real reason was that they were considered politically unreliable.

At the same time, Saakashvili ruled that the number of reservists should be drastically reduced, to 3,000. Between 2005 and 2008, up to 100,000 men, including several cabinet ministers, had undergone training to form no fewer than 15 reservist battalions.

That decision to cut the number of reservists is all the more puzzling in light of Saakashvili's comments at the ceremonial opening in late December 2009 of a new building for the National Guard. On that occasion, Saakashvili stated that "we must all be ready for a war, and we need to have at least half a million men ready to take up arms, and enough arms and ammunition for them." He said the entire population, including women, should be trained and armed in order "to repel the enemy."

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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