The Georgian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has reintroduced compulsory military service in the army, eight months after then–defense minister Tina Khidasheli abolished military conscription (Civil Georgia, February 15). As early as November 2016, Georgian Minister of Defense Levan Izoria announced his plans to ultimately restore the system of mandatory recruitment: “We deem it expedient to restore compulsory military service, which will have a renewed form. In particular, the conscripts will undergo a thorough initial training and will become perfect military personnel. A conscript’s [monthly] remuneration will be 50 lari [$18.8]. Conscripts will have an opportunity to [leave on] holidays,” the minister promised at the time (Accent.com.ge, November 7, 2016). According to him, “Updated military compulsory service will provide economical cost, [a better] professional support component [for] the system of conscription, [as well as] training of more staff for [the reserves] and contract military service” (News-4-u.ru, November 7, 2016).
Defense Minister Izoria’s predecessor, Khidasheli, wholly rejected his argument in favor of conscription: “The army does not need soldiers who are forced to serve in the Armed Forces. Recruits lose employment prospects and their social problems [are exacerbated]” (Sputnik-georgia.com, November 8, 2016). Khidasheli resigned from her position, in August 2016, after her party, the Republicans, left the ruling Georgian Dream coalition.
As the editor-in-chief of the military-analytical magazine Arsenali, Irakli Aladashvili, points out, the dispute between the two ministers over the draft concerns only 10 percent of the total personnel of the Georgian army. “Ninety percent of soldiers serve under contract, and Mrs. Khidasheli’s decree concerned only the remaining 10 percent—i.e., the conscripts who performed very important auxiliary functions in the army. They helped the [professional] soldiers and the entire army. And in the absence of recruits in the army, the state will be forced to pay support personnel from the government budget to accomplish these functions,” Aladashvili noted in an interview with this author. He believes that the reason for restoring conscription is driven by the government’s need to save money rather than reflecting any systemic reform priorities. After all, the vast majority of servicemen in the Georgian Army are already contractors. This was true both under former minister Khidasheli and at present, under Defense Minister Izoria (Author’s interview, February 17).
Related to the budget issue, no real evidence exists that Izoria intends to increase the number of Georgian military personnel. Currently, the Armed Forces do not exceed 30,000 servicemen. On the contrary, the defense ministry has put forth plans to reduce the army by several thousand service members (Kommersant, January 31).
Vakhtang Maisaya, a renowned Georgian military expert and a doctor of military science, pointed out that the foreign press has been promulgating many wrong interpretations regarding the recent abolition and restoration of conscription in the army. “From the moment of [our] declaration of independence, general conscription has operated in Georgia. Nobody has canceled it. All citizens who reach 18 years age are obliged to serve. Recruits are called up for military service not only in the army, but in the special forces, the police, the Special State Protection Service and the prison security service. The only question is, whether at least a small part of them [draftees] will also serve in the army,” Maisaya emphasized. In his opinion, the cessation of conscription of 10 percent of military personnel had a symbolic character. “The former minister, Tinatin Khidasheli, thereby tried to show to NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization] the determination to create an army based on the model of the Anglo-Saxon countries—which are the leaders of the Alliance,” the expert asserted (Author’s interview, February 17).
But as the chairman of the parliamentary Defense and Security Committee, Irakli Sesiashvili, pointed out, “There is no single standard in NATO: Conscription successfully works in most countries.” And for the Georgian budget, affordability is the most important priority. “Especially as the question is just about 10 percent of the total personnel of the army,” the deputy said. He assured that the Georgian parliament and the government “completely agree with the decision of Minister of Defense Levan Izoria” (Author’s interview, February 17).
Nonetheless, the opposition believes that the restoration of conscription is “bad news” from the point of view of modernizing the Armed Forces and preserving Georgia’s westernizing orientation: “During the reign of [former] president [Mikheil] Saakashvili [2004–2013], a gradual transition to a fully professional army was considered irreversible. That is precisely why the number of conscripts was reduced to 10 percent of all military personnel. It is not excluded that saving [money] is only a pretext, and certain forces within the government have made this decision for ideological reasons,” argued David Darchiashvili, one of the leaders of the opposition party European Georgia (Author’s interview, February 17).
Meanwhile, specialists and military experts are mostly concerned about the fact that frequent changes to the army recruitment system could lead to disorientation and a weakening of the country’s defensive capabilities. Professor Irakli Batiashvili, the former head of the Information and Intelligence Service of Georgia, explicitly argued that altering army recruiting too often results in a “lack of accurate vision and [the absence of] a well-established doctrine of army building.” He added, “Of course, based on the experience of developed countries, it is better to gradually move to a fully professional army, but the process must be precisely staged.” According to Batiashvili, the results have been mostly negative when “the approach cardinally changes within several months. It will very badly affect the process of constructing the army and its defensive capability” (Author’s interview, February 17). Considering the chronic coalition churning and repeated cabinet reshuffles in the current ruling government, however (see EDM, July 30, 2014; May 6, 2015; April 1, 2016), it remains to be seen if the authorities will at last be able to stay the course on the question of manning of the Georgian Armed Forces.