Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 205

Scandal-prone Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili is back in the news thanks to the continuing investigation into the Ministry of Defense purchase of allegedly defective armored vehicles from Ukraine in 2004 (see EDM October 14). After the arrest of three senior defense officials on charges of importing faulty vehicles, military police interrogated Vakhtang Kapanadze, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s chief military aide. Shortly after the interrogation on October 28 Kapanadze, who previously was chief of the general staff of the Georgian army, suddenly resigned without explanation.

The resignation of Kapanadze, an experienced and Western-educated military commander, reflects the ongoing but vehemently denied power struggle within the Georgian military and Defense Ministry. Kapanadze’s resignation is considered a victory for Okruashvili, who had dismissed his reported rival Kapanadze from the post of chief of the general staff in February and replaced him with his ally Levan Nikoleishvili (see EDM, February 22).

The newspaper 24 Saati obtained a copy of Decree No. 353 on implementation of the purchase agreement between the Georgian Defense Ministry and the Ukrainian state company Ukrspezexport. The decree had been issued on October 26, 2004, by then-chief of staff Kapanadze. Article 6 of the decree clearly reads that that the current chief of staff, Colonel Levan Nikoleishvili, then serving as deputy chief of staff, was solely responsible for checking that the purchased armored vehicles were in working order. The scapegoating of General Kapanadze is likely an attempt to mislead the public by concealing the current chaos in the defense community and shielding the actual guilty parties, who are members of Okruashvili’s inner circle.

Contrary to Okruashvili’s statements about “getting rid of amateurs” in the army, local independent military analysts unanimously argue that more and more highly professional, Western-educated military cadres from the army are being replaced by former policemen and prosecutors. “Anyone can see the list of dismissed military officers and see that 90% of them have received military education in the West,” says Kakha Katsitadze, a military pundit formerly heading the ministry’s department for strategic planning.

Okruashvili, who legislators summoned to parliament on October 27 for a question-and-answer session, was unusually friendly, particularly given his previously tough behavior. Although Okruashvili dismissed allegations on wrongdoings in the army, he nevertheless admitted that 200 troops trained under the U.S.-funded Train-and-Equip Program have quit the army. Okruashvili also admitted that the armored vehicles imported from Ukraine were defective and that his service lacks well-trained, middle-ranking officers.

The Defense Minister slightly lifted the veil of secrecy shrouding the mysterious Army Development Fund and Law Enforcement Agency Development Fund, which, according to him, will raise some $17.7 million for army needs by the end of this year. He said the funds come from donations by Georgian businessmen living abroad. In 2006, Georgia’s official defense budget will increase from GEL 368 million to GEL 392.5 million (from $205 million to $218 million), Okruashvili added. Nevertheless, the unresolved problems in the army are evident, and they further weaken Okruashvili’s once-powerful stance in Saakashvili’s entourage. Analysts no longer consider Okruashvili to be a contender for the presidency (see EDM, April 22).

The military has suffered a variety of bad press in recent weeks. On October 18, dozens of armored vehicles parked at the Tbilisi-based tank repair plant, which Russia transferred to the Georgian army this June, were stripped by still-unidentified burglars. Ten days later, on October 28, a court sentenced seven commandos from the Kutaisi battalion, drilled within the U.S.-sponsored “Train and Equip” program, to three months in jail. The commandos had been detained for fighting and resisting arrest.

The successive failures likely undermined Okruashvili’s authority in Saakashvili’s eyes. On October 21, Saakashvili, as Supreme Commander-in-Chief, conducted a surprise inspection at the Defense Ministry while Okruashvili and Nikoleishvili were on a visit to the United States. Deputy Chief of Staff Colonel Aleko Kiknadze, Okruashvili’s man, appeared an hour late and was immediately dismissed. The inspection revealed the lack of discipline and combat readiness in the Georgian defense system. The method of scrutiny, evidently aimed at fault-finding, suggests that Saakashvili no longer blindly trusts Okruashvili.

Media speculation is running high about an anti-Okruashvili plot reportedly hatched by Saakashvili confidants linked to the Liberty Institute, a well-known non-governmental organization. The plot, allegedly spearheaded by influential parliamentarian Giga Bokeria, seeks to restrict Okruashvili’s influence. “Probably Saakashvili has been convinced that Okruashvili poses a threat for him,” says analyst Paata Zakareishvili who argues that the death of Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania earlier this year disturbed the fragile political balance in Georgia.

Analysts argue that Saakashvili emerged from Zhvania’s shadow as an independent political player largely thanks to Okruashvili. This personal debt is likely the main reason for Saakashvili’s reluctance to sack the defense minister. The recent softening of Okruashvili’s attitude is ascribed to his intention to weather the successive attacks of opponents. However, analysts argue that Okruashvili is still popular among a certain segment of Georgian society and his political rivals cannot yet vanquish him.

(24 Saati, October 27; Rezonansi, October 21, 25; Kviris Palitra October 24; Media News, October 28; Alia, October 31; Civil Georgia, October 27;, October 30; Kavkaz Press, November 1)