Embattled Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili has dropped hints that he might resign from the cabinet.
Okruashvili has made headlines recently due to several scandalous statements about his opponents. First, the opposition New Rights Party criticized Okruashvili for patronizing known smuggling operations. In a televised interview, Okruashvili denounced his accusers, saying that the opposition’s charges against him were as fantastic as accusations that the New Rights leaders encourage prostitution. Then on April 21, when Georgia’s Human Rights Ombudsman presented his annual report to parliament, New Rights faction leader David Gamkrelidze accused the Ombudsman of ignoring reports that Okruashvili had cruelly whipped an enlisted soldier.
On April 19, Okruashvili held a news conference that was his first broad contact with the media since his appointment in January. Okruashvili said that he would immediately resign if he ever thought President Mikheil Saakashvili was dissatisfied with his performance. “I’ll not create discomfort to President,” he added. In another surprising comment, Okruashvili stated that he would remain in the office for only two or three years; when Saakashvili appointed Okruashvili he had pledged that he would remain defense minister until Georgia’s territorial integrity is restored.
Saakashvili, who is rumored to be willing to sack Okruashvili, likely does not want to take any action that would allow Okruashvili to resign with dignity and possibly give him political ammunition. While inspecting the Krtsanisi military training center (outside Tbilisi) April 5 alongside Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili (Okruashvili’s would-be rival), Saakashvili publicly praised Okruashvili.
Few analysts believe that Okruashvili and Saakashvili could get on with each other for a long time (see EDM, March 31). Sources claim that Okruashvili’s inner circle already considers him a possible candidate to challenge Saakashvili in the 2009 presidential race. However, for this scenario to happen, Okruashvili would need to leave Saakashvili’s team and become an independent political player. Saakashvili likely wants to avoid such a development, because Okruashvili is popular enough to potentially become a strong political figure.
Before his news conference Okruashvili had endured sharp attacks from both Saakashvili’s political opposition and representatives of civil society. They charged the minister with taking the Ministry of Defense away from civilian control, murky spending practices, particularly the source of extra-budgetary funding, tolerating the mistreatment of soldiers, and unofficially encouraging several lucrative but shady activities, including smuggling. The pundits tended to read a heavy political pretext behind these charges, because of Okruashvili’s alleged political ambitions.
The targeted smear campaign put Okruashvili on the defensive. He rejected the criticism of “non-transparent spending” leveled by prominent civic leaders, arguing that they “either do not want the country to have an army, do not want the country to be able to defend itself, or do not want it to restore its territorial integrity once and for all.”
Okruashvili attempted to defend himself by alleging that the campaign against him smacked of operations by the Russian special services possibly angered over his anti-Russian stance. Moreover, in an interview with Mze TV Okruashvili claimed a tangible success in building the Georgian army under his leadership. “We can’t speak openly what the ministry is going to purchase. Of course, the public will learn about it when the process is complete,” According to knowledgeable sources the ministry, with its budget increased to 175 million lari ($96 million) is rapidly purchasing modern military hardware, including tanks from the former Soviet republics, mostly Ukraine. In the same interview Okruashvili claimed that by the end of 2005 the Georgian army would be capable of restoring Georgia’s territorial integrity.
Despite this external bravado, Okruashvili was later forced to soften his tone and provide information about the much talked of semi-official Army Assistance Fund, which, according to the opposition, consists of funds extorted from corrupt officials in Georgia’s ex-president Eduard Shevardnadze’s government. In an interview with the Georgian Times, Okruashvili admitted that many former officials and business people suspected of corruption had paid the government considerable money to buy their freedom, but he refused provide figures.
At an April 19 press conference, Okruashvili denied the allegation that he had spent $500 million from the Army Assistance Fund. Instead, he admitted that “only $20 million” has been spent for military needs. Okruashvili refused again to identify sponsors of the fund. Okruashvili made another revelation at the news conference: “Today we have a military formation that only resembles an army, but at the end of the year it will become a true army,” he said.
Okruashvili outlined several other defense problems. He said that most of the contract servicemen of the Sachkhere battalion, which were drilled under the American “Train and Equip” program and then served in Iraq as peacekeepers, promptly quit the army on return. According to Okruashvili, they decided to return to the civilian life after earning money while in Iraq. “We face a similar problem with regard to other Georgian units now serving in Iraq,” he conceded.
Okruashvili remains a player in Georgian politics. Sources say that his hawkish attitude and inflexibility are becoming unpopular both within Georgia and abroad. Therefore, his latest hint of a possible resignation might signal that Okruashvili is seeking a “face-saving” formula to vacate his post.
(Mze TV, April 4; Imedi TV, Rustavi-2 TV, April 5; Georgian Times, April 14; Caucasus Press, 24 Saati, April 20)