By Zaal Anjaparidze
It seems that a serious confrontation is brewing within the Georgian military establishment. Who, if anyone, might emerge the winner largely depends on the results of an investigation by the Military Prosecutors’ Office and the parliament’s Control Chamber aiming at exposing possible financial abuses in the Georgian Defense Ministry. The findings of the investigation will likely determine whether Defense Minister David Tevzadze keeps his job.
WHO SHOULD SUPPLY THE ARMY?
The scandal broke out in November 1999, when, in an interview with the newspaper “Alia,” Chief Military Prosecutor Badri Bitsadze charged the leadership of the Defense Ministry and Tevzadze personally of abusing power. Bitsadze’s charges were centered primarily on the alleged misappropriation of budget funds for the armed forces and on the legality of a commercial deal between the Defense Ministry and a nongovernmental organization–the Society for the Support of the Georgian Army (SSGA). The SSGA was acting as a contractor supplier to the Defense Ministry. Close relatives of the defense minister, including his brother Guram Tevzadze, were members of the SSGA. Bitsadze said that the Military Prosecutors’ Office had discovered that transactions among the SSGA, its fifty affiliated companies and the Defense Ministry were questionable from both the financial and legal viewpoints, and the result of corpus delicti on the part of top Defense Ministry officials. Despite the fact that the investigation is still underway, the Military Prosecutors’ Office has instituted criminal proceedings against the entities involved in the deal, though no specific persons have been targeted.
Bitsadze said that improper use of budget funds was one of the problem areas in the development of the Georgian army. He said the accession of Tevzadze as defense minister had not only not improved the situation in this area, but had made it worse. Bitsadze painted a lurid picture of the affairs in the Georgian army. He said that though the Defense Ministry had not fully received the budget funds it had requested, what it had received was quite enough to provide basic living conditions for servicemen. According to Bitsadze, the ministry’s failure to provide servicemen with basic supplies and wages has led to more than 3,000 desertions and a six to nine months arrears in salaries. He recalled that due to a chronic shortage of supplies, the commander of one unit was forced to dissolve the unit and allow hungry soldiers to return home. Two nongovernmental organizations, the Center for Research of Civil-Military Relations and the Society for Soldiers’ Rights, have basically confirmed these charges.
Bitsadze called “unjustified” the Defense Ministry’s claim that it has received only 60 percent of what it was allocated in the state’s budget, and also charged that the Defense Ministry had done nothing to improve the situation in the army. According to Bitsadze, the Military Prosecutors’ Office plans to interrogate not only high-ranking military officers, but also senior Finance Ministry officials, to determine who was responsible for the abuses. Bitsadze’s charges against Tevzadze were the same as those the defense minister’s other enemies have been leveling against him, unsuccessfully, since March 1999.
There are rival explanations for the SSGA scandal. According to Colonel Aleksandr Mchedlishvili, head of the Defense Ministry’s public relations service, the army suppliers selected by tender before Tevzadze took office were corrupt and frequently violated contracts made with the Defense Ministry to provide logistical support. As soon as the Defense Ministry under Tevzadze began to put its relations with the suppliers in order, Mchedlishvili said, the latter abruptly stopped providing the army with food and other necessary supplies. In October 1998, the Defense Ministry, to cope with the emergency situation involving supplies to the army, invited the SSGA to get involved. The organization won a tender to supply food products, uniforms and fuel. The Defense Ministry earmarked 5 million laris (some US$2.5 million) for the SSGA to provide supplies. According to Mchedlishvili, the department for military logistical support, which is formally responsible for contract purchasing, was frozen out of the deal because it was also corrupt and three of its directors were fired during the last two years. Mchedlishvili admitted, however, that the SSGA and its affiliated firms had also resorted to some questionable financial practices, and that the Defense Ministry had handed material concerning the abuses over to the Control Chamber (the parliament’s watchdog body which supervises the use of state budget funds).
Tevzadze’s opponents, including Colonel Avtandil Davitadze, the former director of the Defense Ministry’s treasury-budget department, see the SSGA controversy differently. Tevzadze fired Davitadze when he reportedly discovered that the SSGA had misappropriated 2.6 million Laris. Tevzadze’ brother Guram, however, failed to make public documents proving that the Defense Ministry’s credit had been properly used.
According to the pro-Tevzadze forces, the formal reason for Davitadze’s dismissal was incorrect budget policy, because Davitadze was involved in financial abuses and had provided data on defense expenditures which conflicted with figures the Finance Ministry and the National Bank provided. The real reason Davitadze was sacked, however, was that he was not part of Tevzadze’s inner circle. But Davitadze decided to launch a press campaign against Tevzadze, which stopped only after the Defense Ministry public relations office mounted a counter-campaign depicting Davitadze as trying to compromise Tevzadze on the Russia’s special services orders.
The extent the SSGA fulfilled the terms of the contract and the share of responsibility of David Tevzadze and his relatives remain unclear. What is clear is that the SSGA’s logistical support has not improved the chronically poor supply of food and clothing to Georgia’s soldiers. This does not reflect well on Tevzadze and his team, who depict themselves as pro-Western. So far, the Defense Ministry has not explained how it plans to organize the supply of the armed forces in the future.
RIVALRY OR POLITICAL CONFRONTATION?
Bitsadze made the reason for his public charges against Tevzadze very clear, and the rekindling of the SSGA case rather clear in a formal letter he sent to Tevzadze before the interview. The letter accused the Defense Ministry’s chief military inspectorate with exceeding its authority in carrying out a comprehensive audit of the armed forces. Bitsadze claimed that this should have been done by the Military Prosecutors’ Office, which should now determine whether the chief military inspectorate overstepped. According to knowledgeable sources, Bitsadze’s attack against that inspectorate–which is one of Tevzadze’s main bulwarks in the Defense Ministry–was part of a well-calculated strategy by the Military Prosecutors’ Office and Bitsadze wanting to maintain their total control over auditing the armed forces, to weaken Tevzadze. Colonel Mchedlishvili told Prism that this could mean that huge profits from illegal activities may go unpunished.
The defense minister responded to the chief military prosecutor promptly. In his letter, Tevzadze said Bitsadze’s demand to overhaul the activity of chief military inspectorate would restrict the defense minister’s authority to maintain oversight over the armed forces. Moreover, Tevzadze charged that the Military Prosecutors’ Office had failed to properly investigate twenty-two cases of financial abuse in the armed forces which the Defense Minister had uncovered. He called for the creation of a joint commission to delve into the past records of both the military inspectorate and the Military Prosecutors’ Office. Bitsadze, however, rejected the proposal. Moreover, he tried to dramatize the conflict, saying said that he had received several browbeating telephone calls after his newspaper interview criticizing Tevzadze.
On December 8 of last year, the Defense Ministry’s press service denounced the chief military prosecutor as biased and untrustworthy. The Defense Ministry wants Jamlet Babilashvili, Georgia’s prosecutor general, to supervise personally the SSGA investigation and the prosecutor general to legally assess Bitsadze’s allegations against the Defense Ministry leadership. On December 20, Tevzadze sent another formal letter to the prosecutor general, asking him to withdraw the criminal case against the SSGA from the Military Prosecutors’ Office and supervise the investigation personally. At the same time, Chief Military Prosecutor Badri Bitsadze himself became a target of charges. On December 22, Revaz Adamia, chairman of the parliament’s defense/security committee, accused some employees of the Military Prosecutors’ Office of bribery. Bitsadze denied charges and demanded that the prosecutor general investigate them.
Is the conflict between the defense minister and chief military prosecutor simply a personal rivalry or a political confrontation, reflecting the backstage battles within Georgia’s military and political establishment? It is notable that Tevzadze and Bitsadze had never before clashed publicly. Both, moreover, are known as loyalists of President Eduard Shevardnadze. Until recently, Tevzadze enjoyed Shevardnadze’s firm support, which reliably shielded him from attacks by his foes. Tevzadze won that support thanks to his outspoken pro-Western and reformist position concerning the development of the armed forces. Educated and pro-Western commanders like Tevzadze are still rare in the Georgian armed forces, which inherited many of the traits of the Soviet armed forces. In September 1999, Tevzadze promised the Defense Ministry staff that he would include overdue salaries and pensions to military personnel among the priority items in the 2000 state budget. The severe budget crisis, however, ruined these hopes. On December 10, Tevzadze walked out of a government meeting, reportedly as a sign of protest against the removal of defense from the state budget’s list of priority funding items. This step sparked rumors that Tevzadze, who had received military education in the United States, might soon resign because he had fallen out of favor with Shevardnadze.
Some events during the last several months, including suicides among servicemen, have further fueled rumors of Tevzadze’s impending resignation. A number of scandals involving Georgia’s armed forces arose during the last year.
1) Colonel Otar Chkhartishvili, ex-commander-in-chief of the Georgian naval forces, is on trial for allegedly misappropriating US$50,000 through an illegal arms deal involving the importation of patrol boats from Ukraine. Along with Chkhartishvili, several senior naval officers are suspected of running an illegal weapons business through their own commercial firms.
2) According the Military Prosecutor’s Office, police last November were able to prevent an attempt to smuggle weapons from the 11th motorized infantry brigade by the head of the brigade’s arms shop, Captain Guram Parsmanishvili, working in collusion with other servicemen.
3) Last December 7, police detained Vice-Colonel Zurab Zarkua, director of the Defense Ministry’s medical storage facilities. According to the Military Prosecutors’ Office, Zarkua has been involved in the theft of ammonia beginning in 1992.
4) Due to the negligence of Defense Ministry officials, Georgian weapons which were featured in the EXPOMIL-99 arms fair in Romania last October of somehow wound up in a Moscow airport on their way back to Georgia. Russian officials confiscated the arms. The incident raised President Shevardnadze’s ire and resulted in the sacking of General Guram Nikolaishvili, Georgia’s military attache in Russia.
5) Last May, the Ministry of State Security and the police uncovered an assassination plot against Shevardnadze involving the commander of the Defense Ministry’s training center, Lieutenant General Gujar Khurashvili, and several other senior military officials. According to the police, the plot was hatched by Georgia’s former security minister–Igor Giorgadze, then living in Moscow–and was aimed at installing a pro-Moscow puppet government in Georgia.
It indeed seems that Tevzadze is gradually falling out of the ruling party’s favor. In March 1998, President Shevardnadze shielded Tevzadze from attacks over the SSGA scandal, even though the investigation was ongoing. More recently, however, Shevardnadze has not rushed to Tevzadze’s defense, saying only that the investigation will provide a final answer to all questions. Guram Tevzadze, told “Alia” that Bitsadze’s attack against his brother is a part of a political intrigue by forces seeking to gain control of the Defense Ministry.
According to Colonel Mchedlishvili, forces working to undermine Georgia’s military potential are doing their utmost to discredit the defense minister and the armed forces. He said the allegations against the Defense Ministry and Tevzadze have been timed to coincide with emergency situations or important events. For example, Bitsadze’s campaign against Tevzadze broke out just before the meeting of defense ministers of NATO partner countries. In a December 13 interview with Rustavi-2 TV, Tevzadze confessed that there were serious problems in the armed forces. He said that in the wake of the recent attempts to steal arms, an overall inventory was being carried out, and that high- and middle-rank officers were being weeded out. According to Defense Ministry sources, as of April 1999 there were 350 vacancies for junior army officers.
By pushing for a purge of Soviet-era servicemen, Tevzadze has reportedly gained many foes. In the aforementioned interview, he said the number of older officers in the armed forces has reached a critical point. Tevzadze also pointed out the difficulties in the ongoing military conscription. He estimated that the arrears in military salaries and pensions came to 15 million Laris (roughly US$7.5 million). Meanwhile, Tevzadze denied the rumors of his imminent resignation. He confirmed, however, that the army would be worse off financially in 2000. It was noteworthy that in his interview, Tevzadze significantly softened his rhetoric concerning his confrontation with Bitsadze, calling the conflict “routine.” For his part, Bitsadze has also started downplaying his charges against the Defense Ministry. He has denied being backed by political forces seeking Tevzadze’s ouster.
The development of the armed forces has become one of the most problem-plagued issues for the Georgian state since its independence. After the humiliating defeat of Georgian armed forces in 1992-93 Abkhaz war, the creation of a combat-ready regular army has become a permanent and highly sensitive topic on the agenda. Despite the fact that Defense Minister David Tevzadze has significantly deviated from the pro-Russian line of his predecessor, and Georgia’s military relations with NATO are ascendant, there have been no tangible positive changes in the supply and combat readiness of the Georgian army. The uninvestigated scandal surrounding the SSGA, and the conflict between the chief military prosecutor and the defense minister, is evidence of deep contradictions within the Georgian military establishment, which in turn reflect an ongoing political confrontation and struggle for power. Squabbles within Georgia’s defense and security bodies, as well as those responsible for law enforcement within the armed forces, weaken Georgia’s ability to face the challenges posed by its worsening relations with Russia and war in Chechnya. It is widely perceived that one of the reasons for the scandals and financial abuses in the Defense Ministry is the lack of civilian control over the Georgian defense sector. This “disease” also afflicts other Georgian “force” agencies. Despite the fact that the new leadership of the Defense Ministry claims to be pro-Western and to want to shed the Soviet legacy, the ministry has done very little institute elements of Western style civilian-military relations. At the same time, there are signs that the confrontation between the defense minister and the chief military prosecutor is a political power struggle timed to coincide with critical events in and around Georgia. This does not bode well for the country’s political stability.
Zaal Anjaparidze, a former editor of the English-language-weekly “Resonance,” is a freelance writer for Georgian and international publications.