On August 25, Saakashvili fired the Chief of Staff of the Georgian Armed Forces, Givi Iukuridze, and replaced him with his Western-educated deputy, Maj. Vakhtang Kapanadze. Saakashvili explained the move as consistent with the desire to build “a new structure, which will meet NATO standards.” He continued, “The new leadership of the General Staff will be composed of persons who have undergone Western military education.” Defense Minister Giorgi Baramidze, who is keeping his job for now, declared that the new leadership of the General Staff of the Armed Forces “will be a team of Western-educated co-thinkers.” Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania added that Iukuridze would be reassigned as the Georgian military attache in Moscow.
Givi Iukuridze, 49, a graduate of the Academy of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces in Moscow, was appointed the Chief of Staff in February 2004. Previously he headed the chief military inspectorate in the National Security Council. Senior Georgian military officers still describe him as a highly respected professional.
The official explanation for Iukuridze’s transfer, i.e. a plan to stock the Georgian army with Western-educated officers, runs counter to recent government policy. It also raises questions about whether Georgia has a comprehensive vision of the military, particularly its personnel policies. Iukuridze’s “Russian” background did not raise any concerns when he was first appointed. As recently as April President Saakashvili declared that Iukuridze would remain on his position “while I am the President.” This new personnel requirement also is a reversal of the recent preliminary agreement between Baramidze and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Ivanov, about resuming Georgian officer training at Russian military institutions.
One of the unspoken reasons for Iukuridze’s dismissal is said to be the poorly planned summer military operation in South Ossetia, which had unexpectedly high military casualties. Georgia’s State Minister for Conflict Resolution, Giorgi Khaindrava, hinted at this explanation, complaining, “Georgia lost 16 soldiers in the last few weeks, and this is inadmissible.” According to the Georgian Ministry of Health, 19 Georgian soldiers were killed and 45 injured in the recent clashes with the South Ossetian militias and Russian mercenaries. The press reports about 24 killed servicemen, including interior 13 troops and 11 from defense ministry units.
Iukuridze defended his leadership, saying that the army units in South Ossetia had succeeded with their mission. In an interview with RFE/RL’s Georgian service following his dismissal, Iukuridze tried to shift responsibility, saying that Defense Minister Baramidze was in charge of the operation to protect the roads linking the Georgian-controlled territories with the Georgian enclave north of the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali. However, the post-conflict analysis of the August battles has detected some serious shortcomings in Georgian troop performance, and Iukuridze and other top military leaders must share responsibility for the failures.
Georgian soldiers in the conflict zone were not properly equipped for battle. At least 12 soldiers died because they did not have flak jackets to protect them. The Defense Ministry ignored requests for additional body armor and blamed its scarce budget for the shortage, although the local firm “Toritech” offered locally made, high quality flack-jackets at a reasonable price. Georgian troops in the conflict zone also lacked night-vision devices, which were vital equipment, given that most of the battles were after dark. Independent military experts also pointed out the ineffectiveness of Georgian military intelligence; during the battle they failed to capture even a single prisoner for interrogation. Many of the Russian firearms used by Georgian soldiers during the battle were outdated and thus less effective. On August 20 military counterintelligence troops discovered that many of the boxes marked “hand-grenades” and “cartridges” sent to the Georgian troops deployed in the conflict zone had been weighted with stones and sand. Three logistic officers of the Defense and Interior Ministry units were arrested on charges of misappropriation of military equipment. Saakashvili categorically demanded that law enforcement must investigate the case and “punish traitors.”
The new Chief of Staff, Maj. Vakhtang Kapanadze, is a 44-year old graduate of the U.S. Army War College, the Ukrainian military academy, and the Marshall Center for Security Studies in Germany. Kapanadze fought in Afghanistan and in Abkhazia. In recent years he served in the Defense Ministry intelligence division. His two deputies — Colonel Levan Nikoleishvili and Colonel Davit Nairashvili — are both graduates of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and the NATO Defense College. Upon assuming his new post, Kapanadze told reporters, “Reform of the General Staff and strengthening of the armed forces will be our main goal.”
Despite attempts to cope with the recent revelations of problems in the armed forces, the Georgian government has not released much information about what the Russian Foreign Ministry’s August 25 statement called “the failed military adventure” in breakaway South Ossetia. What lessons the Saakashvili government has learned from the “Ossetian adventure” remain to be seen. (Radio Imedi August 25; TV Rustavi-2, August 25; Civil Georgia, August 26; Georgian Times, August 26; Akhali Versia, August 27; Asaval-Dasavali, August 23-29; Week’s Palette, August 23-29).