Bacho Akhalaia Becomes Georgia’s New Defense Minister

by Giorgi Kvelashvili

On September 2nd, the Jamestown Blog reported the appointment of Bacho Akhalaia to become Georgia’s new defense minister; the sixth in almost six years after the Rose Revolution in November 2003.

Akhalaia replaced Vasil Sikharulidze who, before assuming the post of defense minister shortly after the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, had served as Ambassador to the United States and now will be advising the president on foreign policy.

Introducing the new minister to the National Security Council of Georgia on August 28, President Saakashvili highly praised his organizational skills above all his efforts which helped “establish the lines of military fortifications around Tbilisi,” and thanks to his “personal efforts,” “these defense lines are now set in place”.

The radical opposition, not represented in parliament, harshly criticized the new appointment. As reported by the Georgian TV channel Rustavi 2, former Speaker of the Georgian parliament, currently one of the leaders of the radical opposition, Nino Burjanadze said during her press conference on August 31 that by appointing Bacho Akhalaia as defense minister “President Saakashvili decided to destroy the Georgian army,” and accused the president of “attempting to subordinate the army to police and [Minister of Internal Affairs] Merabishvili and establish police mechanisms in the army.

She also noted that “during my visit to the United States I personally witnessed how high ranking U.S. officials from the State and Defense Departments expressed their concerns when Akhalaia became deputy defense minister.”

According to the Russian news agency Regnum, the outgoing Public Defender of Georgia, Sozar Subari, whose five-year term is soon to expire, accused Mr. Akhalaia “of repeatedly violating the Georgian law” and called him “a criminal.” The same news agency reported one of the leaders of the radical New Rights Party, Mamuka Katsitadze, as saying that “the new appointment proves that President Saakashvili continues to create a police regime” in the country.

Another representative of the radical opposition , ex-chief of Georgian Intelligence and a long-time associate of former President Shevardnadze went even further by declaring that “since Bacho Akhalaia is incompetent and has a bad reputation, his appointment will bring about a new wave of dissatisfaction in the army.” Notably enough, the Russian news agency Regnum – known for its anti-Georgian publications, titled the article with Mr. Batiashvili’s revelation “The Georgian Army is getting out of Saakashvili’s Control”.

Who is Bacho Akhalaia whose appointment has caused so much heated debate? He is closely associated with President Saakashvili and Minister of Internal Affairs Vano Merabishvili, who as one of the few long-serving ministers in the ever-changing Georgian government was once called by President Saakashvili “the backbone of the Georgian state.”

The 28-year-old Mr. Akhalaia started his political career as an activist in the Liberty Institute of Georgia, an NGO that played an outstanding role in the 2003 Rose Revolution. After the revolution, he first worked in the office of the Public Defender and then headed the Penitentiary Department under the Ministry of Justice before he became deputy defense minister – the position he held until the current ministerial office.

Mr. Akhalaia’s tenure in charge of correction facilities was marked by a prison riot in which several inmates died when police moved in “to stop an attempted mass breakout” on March 27, 2006. The rioting was a direct result of President Saakashvili’s determination to eradicate the most notorious bastion of organized crime in Georgia, the so called thieves-in-law (Georgian mafia or kurduli samkaro). The highly organized, structured and hierarchical thieves-in-law were an indelible feature of the former Soviet Union and remain such throughout Russia and other post-Soviet states. They are believed to be involved not only in extortion and other types of crime but also in high profile political processes. They played an outstanding role in the coup d’etat against the first elected President of Georgia Zviad Gamsakhurdia and were then closely associated with President Shevardnadze’s most notorious ministers – most notably, former Minister of Internal Affairs Kakha Targamadze who currently resides in Russia.

It is believed in Georgia that ethnic Georgian thieves-in-law are manipulated by the Russian intelligence service against the Georgian state and their illegal financial assets are used to thwart Georgia’s state-building process and pro-Western drive.

Many Georgians think that thieves-in-law are a linkage with the Soviet past with its rampant corruption and criminality from where Georgia has been trying to escape ever since the Rose Revolution. Furthermore, pro-Western Georgians consider the “all-Union” structure of thieves-in-law as one of the pillars of the Russian empire which together with other more formal and cultured mechanisms have cemented the empire for decades.

Interestingly enough, Georgian radical opposition figures who are severely condemning Bacho Akhalaia’s new appointment, had in March 2006 explicitly and implicitly criticized the penitentiary department’s anti-mafia steps, saying that even “Stalin was not able to eliminate thieves-in-law.” Mr. Batiashvili, mentioned above, in late 2006 was accused of providing logistical and intellectual support to Emzar Kvitsiani – a Kremlin-backed warlord and a thieves-in-law associate in Upper Abkhazia, who rebelled against the Georgian government – and spent two years in prison. He is now one of the leaders of the opposition Republican Party, which forms an alliance with Mamuka Katsitadze’s New Rights Party. Together with Mrs. Burjanadze’s own Democratic Movement-United Georgia Party and other minor factions, these parties organized protest rallies this past April-June in Tbilisi, demanding Saakashvili’s resignation.

Saakashvili looks unhappy with the state of affairs in his country’s defense. On August 27 he said that “he cannot assess as satisfactory the preparedness of the Georgian armed forces to contain our very aggressive neighbor. A lot more has to be done and a stricter hand is needed in the [defense] ministry.” He then went on to say, “Bacho Akhalaia has many enemies; and there is a specific reason for this: Georgia is the only former Soviet nation – including the Baltic countries which now are EU members – where thieves-in-law can no longer control correction facilities…This man [Bacho Akhalaia] did this, and he did this through very tough measures…The thieves-in-law no longer control the prisons and crime in the country is no longer directed and managed from the prisons”.

There might be several reasons behind President Saakashvili’s choice: bringing a ‘tough man’ to head the defense ministry is apparently aimed at restoring discipline within the Georgian military.

Second, 28-year-old Bacho Akhalaia is not associated with the Soviet past, has no connections to Russia and is known for his pro-Western political views. Saakashvili is believed to prefer the young and inexperienced over those who might be more competent but tainted with ‘Soviet connections.’

Third, institution-building remains Georgia’s major priority given the Kremlin’s efforts to weaken the Georgian state, and reforms in the law enforcement and the penitentiary system have been widely acclaimed as successful.

With the presidential elections in 2013 approaching, Saakashvili apparently wants to create a firm foundation for the next Georgian leader who, he hopes, will have legitimacy not only from the Georgian people but will also abide by the principles of the Rose Revolution.