Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili’s steps toward improving material and technical support for the Georgian army resulted in a significant increase in the military call-up. During the current draft, which started April 26 and will finish July 31, more than 3,000 conscripts have begun service. This is close to a five-year record high figure. Those last five years have been marked by a high incidence of desertion (Week’s Palette June 14-20). Newly appointed Minister of Defense Ghia Baramidze began work by visiting military units to ascertain that troops were receiving sufficient food. Baramidze promised that he would reverse any food shortages that he encountered (Rustavi 2 TV June 14). The new Georgian government has invigorated the military. Beginning with Baramidze, the Georgian Defense Ministry will continue to be led by a civilian who will share power with military leaders. As a token step in a new direction, beginning March 1 the ministry cancelled special identification plates that Defense Ministry personnel had placed on their private vehicles. Those plates allowed vehicles to move throughout Georgia without being subject to search at checkpoints.
Despite widely advertised reforms, the Georgian defense system faces numerous challenges and problems. Those issues have been defined by independent Georgian military and civilian experts as falling into the following categories: poor power sharing between civilian and military leadership; personnel issues; problems in administrative and judicial activity; and, issues involving ministry purchases.
Non-governmental organization “Justice and Freedom,” which monitors Defense Ministry activity, published its findings on ministry leadership over the first 100 days of the “post-revolutionary” period (Mtavari Gazeti June 4). Monitoring indicates that there has been no real sharing of power between the ministry and military leadership. According to Presidential Decree #119, promulgated on April 5, the civilian defense minister holds more power than the military leadership. Until recently, the military’s authority has been undefined. Under the new regime, the Georgian Defense Ministry is composed of 11 departments, although their functions are only vaguely defined. The activities of these units are still governed by orders from military officials rather than by law. Georgian law stipulates that all orders and decrees emanating from the Defense Ministry must be approved by the Georgian Ministry of Justice to guarantee legal compliance. In monitoring implementation of that law, the organization found that only two Defense Ministry decrees had been approved by the Justice Ministry over the past 13 years.
Questionable personnel policy and heavy corruption in the Defense Ministry remain an unresolved problem for Georgia. One of the reasons cited for dismissal of Baramidze’s predecessor Gela Bezhuashvili after only five months in office was his reluctance to purge the middle and higher echelons of the ministry of unprofessional and corrupt personnel, according to sources (“Resonance,” June 11). Recent painful reorganization and personnel cuts in the ministry, depicted as a part of the reform, resulted in dismissal without compensation of 902 employees, including eight generals and 30 senior officers. The majority of those dismissed were educated and trained in either Soviet or Russian military institutions. Under the Bezhuashvili regime, top-ranking officers, including deputy ministers and department heads kept their posts in spite of allegations of incompetence or corruption.
The “westernization” of the Defense Ministry seemingly has failed to improve the combat readiness of its elite forces. In early June, a secret competition was held among Georgian commando units on the Yagludja training grounds in western Georgia. Among the six commando units, the Defense Ministry’s Kojori battalion, trained under the American “Train and Equip” program, unexpectedly was one of the worst performers. That unit emerged in fifth place, behind units of the government guard’s special service, the Ministry of State Security and the Ministry of the Interior (Alia, June 5). Meanwhile, the increased transparency of the Defense Ministry, as compared to the earlier period, coupled with improved media access to information concerning ministry performance could be considered as one of the rare positive changes in this previously highly closed and ineffective system.