Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s call to make building a strong army a top priority may have fallen on deaf ears. Not only are the Georgian armed forces not reforming, but also there are indications that military personnel are selling their weapons.
During an October 21 joint news conference, Vano Merabishvili, Georgia’s Minister of Security; Defense Minister Giorgi Baramidze; and Givi Targamadze, chair of the Parliamentary Committee of Defense and Security, announced the recent discovery of a large stash of arms at an artillery-recycling facility in Dedoplistskaro district, eastern Georgia. When representatives of these three agencies raided the facility earlier that day, they learned that over the last few months the military hardware stored there had been stolen piece-by-piece and sold as a scrap metal.
According to Imedi-TV, Dedoplistskaro is home to an enterprise for weapons disposal operated jointly by the scientific-military center “Delta” and the Defense Ministry. Delta and the Ministry of Defense are in charge of implementing an OSCE-supervised project for the “Recycling and Destruction of Stockpiles of Ammunition and Bombs on Former Military Bases in Georgia.” Under this program, hundreds of dangerously unstable bombs and various types of artillery ammunition have been dismantled and recycled. However, Delta has earned a rather shady reputation for exporting the outdated weaponry.
The government officials did not specify the exact number of weapons that were found at Dedoplistskaro. However, parliamentarian Givi Targamadze reported there were “hundreds of different kinds of arms, including several anti-aircraft installations.” “I’m shocked. If I didn’t see this military technique with my own eyes, I could not believe that such kind of things might happen in today’s Georgia,” he added.
On October 22, representatives from Delta claimed that the weapons in question were outdated, and they had documents, issued by the National Security Council of Georgia, that give the go-ahead to recycle the weapons. However, law enforcement officials claimed that the scraped hardware was in a good condition and that the experts’ report classifying the weaponry as “outdated” had been forged.
According to Defense Minister Baramidze, each unit of military hardware is “as necessary as the breath of life” for the Georgian army. He speculated that the weapons had been decommissioned during the battles in South Ossetia this past August. Therefore, such activity amounted to “high treason.” Baramidze promised to punish the individuals guilty of taking weapons out of the hands of Georgian soldiers. “We have already detained several persons with alleged links to the case; the investigation is ongoing and we expect that more persons will be arrested,” he said, adding that senior officials from the Defense Ministry might also be arrested.
Meanwhile, law enforcement officials have remained silent on media allegations that the recent sacking of Chief of Staff Givi Yukuridze was connected to the scheme. However, they did say that interrogations of all persons with even indirect connection to the case have begun.
President Saakashvili has already ordered law enforcement to reveal all high-level authorities involved in these illegal activities. Furthermore, the task force that carried out the special operation has sealed the cache of military equipment in Dedoplistskaro. The investigation is ongoing and, although investigators are tight-lipped, the trace might lead to the cabinet level.
Exporting scrap metal has become a quite lucrative business in Georgia and has been held under the informal patronage of influential officials, including the power ministries. “We should put an end to the situation when these private firms together with some defense officials are making money at the expense of the Georgian armed forces,” Targamadze said. Resonance reported that the Parliamentary Committee for Defense and Security is scrutinizing sensitive materials that implicate several top officials at the Defense Ministry. In addition, there is considerable media speculation that the resignation of Defense Minister Baramidze is only a matter of time.
The misuse at Dedoplistskaro is not an isolated instance. In September, law enforcement officers arrested two Defense Ministry officials who allegedly were linked to the disappearance of eight Strela-2 portable anti-aircraft missile systems. In late August one Defense Ministry and two Interior Ministry officials were arrested, all of whom were accused of appropriating arms and ammunition from the Osiauri military unit in central Georgia. The history of stealing and smuggling weaponry in the Georgian army dates back to 1990s, and the government appears unable to cope with the problem, so far. The actual state of affairs in the Georgian military infrastructure obviously runs counter the government’s bombastic statements about the country’s defense potential.
(Resonance, October 15; Imedi TV, TV-Rustavi-2, TV-Mze, Civil Georgia, October 21; 24 Hours, October 22).