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Boost to Military Reform in Georgia

Fresh cooperation with the United States gives Tbilisi the opportunity to improve its armed forces.
By Giorgi Tskhvitava
  • (Photo: Georgia's Ministry of Defence)
    (Photo: Georgia's Ministry of Defence)

A new military assistance deal with the United States has given Georgia the chance to move forward with a long-anticipated plans for army reform.

US secretary of state John Kerry and Georgia´s minister of defence Tinatin Khidasheli signed a memorandum on deepening the two country’s security partnership on July 6 in Tbilisi.

Details of the volume of future assistance are expected at the end of July, but the initial document provides for American assistance for Georgia´s territorial defence, including the purchase of weapons.  This is intended to improve the sustainability and deployability of Georgia´s forces and their ability to cooperate with NATO forces.  

“The focus of the assistance of the Georgian Armed Forces has always been associated with international missions and tied to Georgia’s plans to NATO membership,” Khidasheli told reporters after the meeting. “Today we’ve received an additional agreement, which envisages the fundamental and important assistance in fulfilling Georgia’s territorial defense goals.”

Observers say that enhanced cooperation can play a crucial role in shaping the future architecture of Georgia´s currently underfunded armed forces.

Within Georgia, there is debate about just what kind of army the country needs, located in a volatile region where major players such as Russia, Iran and Turkey all compete for influence.

A fifth of Georgia’s territory is occupied by Russia, it is still involved in two unresolved conflicts, and neighbouring Armenia and Azerbaijan are at war with each other.

According to Lasha Dzebisashvili, associate professor at the International Black Sea University, the key security concern is a future large-scale military confrontation with Russia.

Short, medium and long-term plans for the future development of the armed forces all centre on this contingency.

“Of course, the Georgian armed forces are focused on defence,” Dzebisashvili told IWPR.  “We have no plans for hegemony. In this scenario other countries are considered, but this is the basic paradigm.”

For years, Tbilisi viewed joining NATO as a guarantee of the country´s security, until the 2008 war dashed its hopes for membership. 

Since then, Georgia has received over 481 million dollars in bilateral security assistance funding from the US to support its resilience against foreign coercion, Michael Carpenter, deputy assistant secretary of defence, told the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations last month.

But experts note that a significant portion of Georgia´s defence budget is spent on social support for servicemen.

Steps taken in recent years to cut costs in the military while increasing its efficiency – including abolishing  the navy and the air force – have not been enough.

The 2008 war with Russia showed that weapons such as  anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems are essential. But they are expensive; the cost of a single shot from the portable anti-tank missile system Javelin costs more than 50,000 US dollars.

Now, the focus is on reforming the actual structure and compositon of the army.

Changes have already been made; on July 9, Khidasheli announced the end of compulsory conscription.

Until now, men between 18 and 27 years of age were drafted twice a year to serve a period of 12 months.

But the number actually allocated to the army was very small.

Out of 3,183 men recruited between February 1 and June 30 this year, 720 were sent to the ministry of interior, 1,020 to the department of corrections, 443 to the state security service and only 1,000 to the ministry of defence.

Irakli Mchedlishvili, project director of the Civil Council on Defence and Security, said that conscription was mostly for the benefit of the prison system and the ministry of interior.

“What shall [the government] tell the people – the fatherland needs prison guards?” Mchedlishvili told IWPR.  “In fact, the ministry of interior and the prison system have used the ministry of defence as a shield so they can say that conscription is carried out to protect the country.  But in reality, this call has nothing to do with defence.”

A central issue is that, compared with its neighbours, Georgia´s current army of 37,000 soldiers, funded with a budget of about 670 million lari (280 million dollars), is relatively modest. 

According to World Bank data, in 2014 Azerbaijan had 81,950 soldiers, with media reports that it could also draw on 300,000 reservists and a military budget of up to two billion dollars.

As for Armenia, in 2014 it had a standing army of 49,100.  Accordig to various media reports, it also has 210,000 reservists and a budget of over 400 million dollars.  Nagorny Karabakh has up to 25,000 soldiers and around 20,000 reservists.  

There are Russian armed forces in the nearby Southern Military District, which includes neighbouring Armenia and the occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia,

Earlier this year, Russian minister of defence Sergei Shoigu announced that three new divisions with 10,000 soldiers each would be set up in Russia, one of them in the Southern Military District.  This is to counteract NATO´s buildup near Russia’s borders.

The government, in cooperation with NATO experts, is considering several models. One is a mixed system, which includes all three components – a professional army, conscription and reserve forces.  However, one of the main obstacles is the insufficient military budget.

The reserve model created by the previous government did not live up to expectations due to the reservists´ low level of preparedness, according to the ministry of defence. 

Many of them never actually served in the army, instead receiving just 18 days of training before being enlisted into the reserves.

This proved highly inadequate during the 2008 war with Russia, when many reservists simply did not know what to do.

One project under consideration looks at creating a pool of three categories – army reserve, territorial reserve and reserve specialists. 

Under this system, former contractors and career officers would make up the army reserve.

Many analysts agree that a country with unresolved conflicts and external threats cannot fully reject conscription.

“If our main military strategic objective is to create a sufficient deterrent, an army made up of only professionals will not be enough,” said Giorgi Antadze, a PhD candidate who researches security issues at the IB Euro-Caucasian University. 

“The reserve is an alternative.  But to have enough trained reserve personnel, one has to hold a draft,” he said.  “It is clear that the current system of conscription needs to be changed, but it should not be abandoned.”

Giorgi Tskhvitava is a freelance journalist in Georgia.

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