President Mikheil Saakashvili’s announcement on March 4, reshuffling the leadership of Georgia’s armed forces has caused widespread surprise. Colonel Vladimir Chachibaia, Chief of the Joint Staff resigned, after holding the post since only November 2008, with General Devi Chankotadze appointed as his replacement (Inter Press News, March 6). Saakashvili commented that he had taken this decision with the aim of further strengthening the management of the army: "Recently I have conducted tests related to combat and physical preparedness and concluded, that we need to develop new programs to move our army to the next level" (Prime News Agency, March 5).
However, Saakashvili used exactly the same reason in early November, when he appointed the 38 year old graduate of the U.S. Army War College, Colonel Chachibaia as Georgia’s Chief of Joint Staff. It is precisely such inconsistent personnel changes that have fuelled speculation over a sense of continued crisis within the armed forces following the August war. Meanwhile, instead of identifying the underlying causes of the crisis, Saakashvili is only addressing its symptoms, which further worsens an already stressful state of affairs within Georgia’s military. "Such frequent changes of high ranking officials does not contribute to the creation of a stable environment; I think it is detrimental to the institutional effectiveness and, to a certain extent, may also lead to a brain drain from the public sector," suggested security expert Levan Tsutskiridze (www.rferl.org, March 10).
An alleged brain drain from the armed forces began shortly after the Russia-Georgia war ended. The Commander of the Land Forces, Colonel Mamia Balakhadze, a graduate of the Bundeswehr Military High School, was removed from his work of strengthening the military capacity of the country, and transferred instead to the post of assistant to the Military Attaché in Germany. The fate of the former Deputy Chief of Staff, Alexander Osepashvili, is even more remarkable, surprisingly sent on an "exchange program" to the U.S. The former Chief of the Joint Staff, Colonel Chachibaia will also continue his career through a similar "exchange program," after being stripped of his uniform at the age of 38 and transferred to the post of Deputy Minister of Defense. To avoid further public criticism, Saakashvili labeled this appointment as career advancement, though Georgian military experts were more sceptical. "It looked like Colonel Chachibaia was looking forward to leaving and had no desire to remain in his post, in which case, his transfer to a civilian post could be considered as a promotion," General Giorgi Gogashvili said in a recent interview. Gogashvili was on the receiving end of a similar "staff reorganisation" following the Rose Revolution and was dismissed from the army (Rustavi 2 TV, March 5).
There are an increased number of political figures within Georgia, opposed to what appear to be politically motivated dismissals of army officers educated in military institutions within the U.S. and U.K. and their replacement with individuals considered more loyal to the authorities. "The training of such high-level officers costs the U.S. approximately $100,000 and the Georgian authorities have to value this assistance," said Nino Burjanadze ex-speaker of the parliament and one of the Georgian opposition leaders concerned about the senior staff changes currently taking place within the army (Inter Press News, March 5).
Burjanadze, the leader of the Democratic Movement-United Georgia suggests that these apparent reshuffles could risk a potentially serious confrontation between the authorities and disaffected generals. "According to our sources, at one of the meetings Colonel Chachibaia said that he would not repeat the mistake of his predecessor, which was Tskhinvali military operation" (Inter Press News, March 5). Nevertheless, Colonel Chachibaia claims that he has never wanted a confrontation with the government and that he would avoid "political intrigues" (Prime News, March 5). However, political intrigue exists, and the changes amongst the highest ranking military officials might become a test case for the durability of the government as well as Georgian-U.S. military cooperation.
The appointment of General Chankotadze does not correspond with the requirements for the highest ranking military official in a country with aspirations for future NATO membership. "General Devi Chankotadze is a graduate of the Soviet Artillery Command High Military Institution and High Command Courses at the National Defence University in Beijing, while Colonel Chachibaia has attended only Western and U.S. military educational institutions," asserted Colonel Tavdgiridze (www.pressa.ge, March 16). A group of officers with a potentially different political vision have now gained influential positions within the defense sector. "Whereas the authorities preferred to appoint personnel with Western education, now there is a sudden shift of focus towards old staff, who were promoted despite their lack of success in the implementation of reforms, and this has caused tensions," says Colonel Tavdgiridze, who, like many other Georgian officers, has been dismissed from military service and now opposes the government.