Speculation continues around President Eduard Shevardnadze’s February 5 statement about Georgia’s strategic options by the end of his current–and last–term of office in 2005. In a press conference that day, Shevardnadze declared that Georgia should four years from now be in a position to decide whether to seek admission to NATO or to become officially a neutral country. That statement is seen as a retreat from Shevardnadze’s earlier stated goal of “knocking at NATO’s door” by 2005 to apply for admission to the alliance.
Shevardnadze had accentuated that strategic goal almost a year ago during the presidential election campaign, evidently on the premise that his Western-oriented policy is popular with voters. Proclaiming that goal amounted in essence to a statement of intent. Neither the 2005 target date nor Georgia’s capacity to qualify for admission were to be taken literally. The country’s economic situation and conditions in the armed forces are far from meeting NATO requirements. For now, Georgia has embarked on a difficult and long-term homework with a view to meeting those qualifications and obtaining a place at least at the rear of the aspirant countries’ queue.
Georgia and NATO have launched active preparations for Cooperative Partner 2001, the first large-scale exercise to be held by the Atlantic Alliance in the South Caucasus. American-led NATO teams are currently inspecting the exercise site on the Black Sea coast near Poti and drawing up the exercise plans jointly with the Defense Ministry in Tbilisi. The planners had initially selected the Gonio testing grounds near Batumi as the venue for this exercise, but the authorities of Ajaria rescinded their initial consent. The Ajar authorities maintain traditionally close relations with the Russian forces based in the Batumi area.
The exercise will be held in June with the participation of some 4,000 troops and up to forty ships and fifteen aircraft from the United States, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Georgia. While rehearsing a peacekeeping operation, the scenario includes airborne and amphibious landings in simulated combat against hypothetical enemy forces.
The cast of participants reflects the overlapping security interests of allied and partner countries situated in three distinct, yet interconnected regions: NATO’s Mediterranean flank, the Black Sea basin and the South Caucasus. This framework also includes GUUAM’s three core countries–Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan– whose combat troops will for the first time be exercising together with one another and with NATO forces. NATO is the only security organization capable of bringing all these countries together, and Turkey the indispensable linchpin between all of them.
Meanwhile, Georgia’s Defense Ministry has launched the long-overdue reform of the armed forces under dire budgetary constraints. At current manpower and funding levels, army troops are being fed only half the normal calorie intake. Conditions in the barracks are often dangerously unsanitary because laundries and baths refuse to serve military units on the basis of unpaid bills. The first stage of the reform focuses on deep manpower cuts, which should result in substantial financial savings and decent living conditions for the downsized force.
The reform is guided by recommendations from a British-led group of military advisers, either retired NATO generals or from the United States European Command. As outlined publicly by Defense Minister Lieutenant-General Davit Tevzadze, the reform envisages cutting the manpower from last year’s level of 38,000 down to 12,000 or 13,000 in the year 2004, shifting from conscription to the contract system for 70 percent of the troops and turning the downsized army into a rapid deployment force. The second stage is designed to bring that force closer to NATO standards and to ensure interoperability with NATO forces. Key to those goals are bilateral assistance and training programs offered by NATO member countries and the participation of Georgian troops in NATO exercises.
As part of the assistance programs, Georgia is receiving significant and growing donations of military equipment from the United States, Turkey and other countries. Recent equipment donations range from coastal guard cutters to helicopters to communications gear to uniforms and footwear. Italy is due to supply a digital communications system and is considering Tbilisi’s request to train Georgian mountain troops and sea divers. Ukraine has agreed to service and upgrade naval vessels and helicopters in Georgia’s inventory. It has also agreed to defer payment for upgrading the helicopters, the first batch of which is being delivered to Georgia this week. In Kyiv last week, Defense Ministers Oleksandr Kuzmuk and Tevzadze signed an interministerial cooperation agreement which includes Ukrainian assistance to upgrading the air defense system around Tbilisi starting this year.
While the United States is the leading donor of equipment, Turkey is a major source of nonreimbursable assistance to Georgia in terms of training and infrastructure development. The Turkish military has recently completed at its own expense the first phase of reconstruction of the Marneuli military airport, situated some forty kilometers from Tbilisi. This airport will serve Georgia and her NATO partners as a substitute for the Vaziani airport, where Russia insists on retaining usage rights, pending the final closure of Russian military bases in Georgia. The Turkish military sponsors the participation of the Georgian platoon alongside Turkish troops in the Kosovo operation under NATO command. The troops in that platoon receive NATO-standard training and are periodically rotated, enabling them to act as instructors for troops back home. In Ankara last week, the two defense ministries signed an agreement on Turkish technical assistance to Georgia in demining operations and in the military industrial sector and technical training in that sector.
On January 7-8 in Vilnius, Tevzadze and Lithuanian Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius signed an interministerial cooperation agreement. It stipulates in the preamble that Georgia supports Lithuania’s goal to join NATO–a statement seen in Lithuania as a “very significant political gesture on Georgia’s part.” Under the agreement, Lithuania will share with Georgia the information and experience that Lithuania gained in negotiating the withdrawal of Russian troops, ensuring those troops’ physical withdrawal and dealing with the sequels of the Russian military presence (Prime-News, Kavkasia-Press, Black Sea Press, UNIAN, Agentstvo Voyennykh Novostei, February 1-7, 10-11; BNS, February 8; see the Monitor, February 1.)
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