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Georgian Army Conscripts to Serve Longer

Plan seems to fly in the face of reforms designed to create tighter professional military.
By Giorgi Tskhvitava
  • Military parade in Tbilisi. (Photo: Mirian Koridze)
    Military parade in Tbilisi. (Photo: Mirian Koridze)

Despite plans to move away from conscription, the Georgian authorities plan to call up more young men and make them serve for longer. Defence experts say fewer professionals are joining up than expected, and there is not enough funding to pay them.

Under a bill drafted by Georgia’s defence ministry, the conscription term would be extended from 12 to 15 months.

Kakha Sukhishvili, the member of parliament who submitted the legislation, said the extension was needed because the current one-year term was not long enough to train soldiers up properly.

The moves seem to mark a pause, if not a halt, in the trend towards building an entirely professional army. Conscription numbers have been falling as more volunteers sign up for the military, under reforms designed to bring the armed forces more into line with the NATO model of highly-trained professional soldiers, rather than the old Soviet conscript army.

Experts say the change comes down to a failure to recruit enough volunteers, the burden of contributing troops to the international force in Afghanistan, and a sheer lack of funding.

According to Teona Akubardia, head of the non-government Civil Council for Defence and Security Issues, “The increase in numbers of conscripts and the extension of the term of service is taking place against the backdrop of falling numbers of professional units.”

Those behind the bill acknowledge that funding is an issue. It is much cheaper to pay conscripts a pittance than to hire professionals at wages that start at 800 laris, around 470 US dollars, a month.

“Shifting to a completely professional army would be a luxury,” Sukhishvili said. “It would require massive budget spending, and the government doesn’t currently have the ability to do that.”

Georgia has contributed troops to the NATO-led force in Afghanistan, and recently announced it was adding another 700 to the 900 it already has stationed in the country.

Overall, the Georgian armed forces consist of 37,000 people, with around 5,000 new conscripts usually called up to the military every year. This spring, the authorities plan to call up more than 4,000 young men over the age of 18, of whom 2,300 will go to the defence ministry and the rest assigned to the interior ministry, the prison service and the Georgian National Guards.

Defence expert Giorgi Tavtgiridze, a retired colonel who formerly headed Georgia’s National Defence Academy, said the Afghan deployment placed added strain on the armed forces.

“The increased size of the Georgian contingent in Afghanistan has led to parts of the army being assigned to pre-operational training, and others [rotated out of Afghanistan] being given a rest. That creates a shortfall,” he said.

Tavtgiridze questioned how the proposed 15-month term of service would fit into the current annual cycle of two conscription periods. This means the spring conscripts are trained over the summer, and the autumn ones over the winter.

“The increased length of conscript service has been poorly designed, and probably didn’t take the views of the military into account,” he said.

News that young men will have to serve longer in the military has not gone down well, especially with those who will be directly affected.

“My son finishes school next year, and if he is conscripted and has to serve 15 months instead of 12, then he will miss the national [university] exams twice over, so he will effectively miss out on two years of education,” Larisa Kirtskhalia, a resident of the western city of Poti, said. “The authorities are constantly saying what a good police force and what a strong professional [military] arm they’ve created. Well then, let’s have professionals serving in the army.”

Giorgi Tskhvitava is head of the Association of Military Reporters in Georgia.

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