Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgia Creates Army Reserves

The president wants the capacity to call up 100,000 men.
By Koba Liklikadze
Georgia is moving towards creating a compulsory system of reserve soldiers, which President Mikheil Saakashvili says will transform its defence capabilities. However, critics say the new system will only increase corruption in the armed forces.

The new system being launched this month obliges all men between 27 and 40 to undergo 24 days training in the army every two years, or 18 days if they are students. Employees must cover their salaries during their leave of absence.

Saakashvili said that within the next two years, Georgia will have a well-drilled 100,000-strong force of reservists who can guarantee the “total defence” of the country, alongside the regular units.

The president himself underwent army reserve training last August, and said on his return, “In a situation where others are baring their teeth at Georgia – and this is no game - we should have the capacity to deploy a minimum of 100,000 men within a few months, if the country needs this.

“In our villages and towns, there should be tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of our citizens who are ready to defend our motherland.”

The reserve system began as a voluntary scheme three years ago, but after a relatively low take-up, it was made compulsory under a law passed by parliament last year.

De facto officials from Georgia’s breakaway territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, say the fact that reservist camps have been placed near their borders is a sign of aggressive intent on the part of the authorities in Tbilisi.

“This is a demonstration that the authorities of Georgia want as many of their citizens as possible to have experience of military operations,” said Gari Kupalba, deputy defence minister of Abkhazia.

Rati Samkurashvili, leader of the majority group in the Georgian parliament, told IWPR, “We do not plan to militarise the country; our main aim is to increase its military efficiency.”

Formally, all Georgian males aged between 18 and 27, excepting students, are required to do 18 months’ military service. However, just 2,000 young men a year are actually called up, and many others manage to bribe their way out of the army. Georgia has been moving away from conscription, and 80 per cent of the 28,000-strong army consists of professional soldiers.

The reserve system is designed not only to boost the number of potential soldiers, but also to instill a greater sense of patriotism. In recent weeks all of Georgia’s television channels have been running an advertisement which shows a young man abandoning his expensive car and enthusiastically joining soldiers in an armoured troop-carrier heading for a military camp.

Giorgi Barbakadze, a 20-year-old third-year student at Tbilisi State University, won’t have to abandon his car, as he does not own one, but he will still have to drop his studies to do 18 days of reserve training.

“I’ve been told that if I do reserve duty twice while I’m at university, I will have completed my entire military service. That will allow me to avoid being called up for a compulsory year-and-a-half service in the army, and make it easier for me to find a government job in future,” he said.

Although the scheme has widespread support, it is also being criticised for being both expensive and unworkable.

Parliamentary opposition deputy Kakha Kukava said he feared the system would be abused.

“We should be aware that unlike Israel, our state institutions function properly only in Tbilisi, and [even there] we’re only talking about a few central ministries,” he said. “All other state establishments in Georgia are a sham. In that light, switching to a reserve service where every district is responsible for a certain military unit such as a company or battalion, is a fiction and will do nothing for military efficiency”.

“Training reserve forces does not just mean a month spent in a tent and a morning run,” warned military expert Shalva Tadumadze, who argues that the army should provide specialist training for its reserve soldiers.

Other analysts warn that the system could increase bribery and corruption.

Irakli Sesiashvili, director of the non-governmental organisation Justice and Freedom, said that with around half a million potential reservists, there will be attempts to buy people off the call-up lists.

“The lists of potential reservists are being compiled by the interior and justice ministries, but departments of the drafting agency will be giving the job of checking them,” said Sesiashvili. “This is where the ‘holes could occur, if we assume that efforts will be made to remove individual reservists from the lists in return for money.”

According to the defence ministry, the heads of six district drafting commissions were prosecuted for negligence and corruption last year. Nana Intskirveli, head of the ministry’s press office, said that in one town alone – Zugdidi in the west of the country – the existence of 1,300 conscription-age men was concealed from the defence authorities.

By law, people who evade military service could face a prison sentence of three to six years.

The government is also trying to lure young men into joining the army full-time by promising them rewards. President Saakashvili has said new commissioned officers will get free apartments.

The president and other government officials plan to visit the reserve camps to demonstrate their personal support for the new scheme.

Koba Liklikadze is a military commentator for Radio Liberty in Tbilisi.