Irakli Okruashvili, Georgia’s Minister of Defense has alleged the continued existence of widespread corruption within the military. On January 4, he named senior Ministry of Defense officials, whom he said were involved in misappropriating funds, and set the target of seeing them imprisoned within one month. Gia Baramidze, State Minister for European Integration and a former defense minister, seemed to support Okruashvili’s allegations the following day, saying that such corruption is likely to persist within the Ministry as a legacy of the Shevardnadze era. The Prosecutor-General’s office has now begun to assess documents received from Okruashvili, and it will carefully deliberate on their content, but the political problems and depth of entrenched internal corruption will, no doubt, mar the task of making headway in ongoing efforts to reform Georgia’s armed forces.
Tales of corruption surrounding the workings of the Ministry of Defense are by no means unusual, though they have surfaced less frequently under Saakashvili’s presidency. However, certain elements in the current crisis are remarkable. First, the individuals named by Okruashvili are largely a product of the current regime and cannot be easily explained away by reference to the old regime. Those implicated in corruption included Paata Gaprindashvili, former deputy defense minister; Akaki Chkhenkeli, director of the Army Development Fund; Vakhtang Chelidze, head of the Ministry of Defense Infrastructure Department; and Amiran Khidasheli, head of the General Staff’s infrastructure department, who was replaced by Vasiko Margalitadze.
Okruashvili gave unambiguous examples of the nature of the activities that have caused him to go public. The renovation of peacekeepers barracks in Nikozi, in Gori district, entailed an expenditure of 70,000 Lari ($38,411). This stunned the Defense Minister, since he recollects overseeing the renovation of the same barracks during his time working in the Interior Ministry; on further investigation he claims the money has simply vanished without trace. He disputed the rather inflated figure of 200,000 Lari ($110,000) for repairs to the Ministry of Defense roof and 5,000 Lari ($2,750) for maintenance work on each elevator within the building, although only one is currently in working condition. Moreover, he believes that price estimates for renovating other barracks throughout Georgia have been drastically inflated, so that corrupt individuals may siphon money away from the project (Imedi TV, January 4).
Second, the timing of the scandal was equally significant, coming during President Saakashvili’s state visit to Ukraine. Okruashvili may have calculated that he could not rely on presidential approval for publicly lambasting those whom he believed guilty of undermining the process of military reform. That his defense minister should choose to act in the president’s absence suggests a level of disunity within the Georgian government and, perhaps more crucially, a singular lack of unity and agreement over the direction of military reform. On his return Saakashvili responded by reasserting his authority and demonstrating governmental agreement, dispelling the recent signs of fractious tendencies: “There is no place for quarrelling people in this government, in the government of Georgia, the country that should get back on its feet, that should do for the people what we promised” (Georgian State Television Channel 1, January 6). Nevertheless, internal quarrelling and corruption are two impediments to successful military reform.
The embezzlement scandal implicating senior Ministry officials was made worse still by the disclosure of more evidence of the chaotic condition of the internal management of the institution. Okruashvili said that Ministry of Defense accounting was so pitifully disorganized that the ministry itself is uncertain exactly how many men are serving in the armed forces.
Baramidze, minister of defense between February and June 2004, was keen to downplay the seniority of the corrupt activities in the Ministry. He admitted that violations were commonplace, but most likely in the lower echelons of the ministry. He had less to say concerning the possible guilt of his deputy at that time, Gaprindashvili, though the latter believes he will be cleared of all charges (Imedi TV, January 4).
The aims and priorities of military reform in Georgia are in little doubt: to create mobile professional armed forces capable of countering internal threats such as terrorism and insurgency, enhance interoperability with NATO, and improve Georgia’s capacity to participate in international peacekeeping operations. Saakashvili has made some progress, particularly in securing greater foreign assistance for facilitating the reform, though his vision for military reform will come unstuck unless he tackles head-on the very corruption that persists within the Ministry that once served as his election platform. He may ride out the present storm, but his future efforts to control the Ministry of Defense and advance reform must be realistic. Indeed, Okruashvili’s most alarming criticism lies in his assessment that those engaging in corruption at the highest levels have effectively run the army into the ground, leaving it in a worse condition than under Shevardnadze’s regime. In this key area at least, the first cracks are appearing in the velvet revolution.