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Georgia's Big Military Spending Boost

Government says sharp rise in defence spending will professionalise army but questions are asked about why the money is being spent.
By Koba Liklikadze
Georgia, which has made breathtaking increases in its defence spending over the last two years, looks set to beat all records this year.

In late June, the Georgian government increased the defence ministry’s budget of 513 million laris (315 million US dollars) by 442 million laris (260 million dollars).

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI, Georgia currently has the highest average growth rate of military spending in the world. Some independent experts are worried that the spending is not fully accounted for, while others say that it could undermine the peace processes with the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The Georgian government insists that the increased spending is absolutely vital to allow the country to improve its defence capabilities, fulfill its NATO commitments and strengthen social support for its military personnel.

“Part of the sum will be used to purchase the equipment that a modern army needs,” Defence Minister David Kezerashvili told IWPR. “Another part will be spent on sending an increased (2000-strong) military contingent to Iraq.”

Kezerashvili rejected claims that Georgia is engaged in a potentially dangerous process of militarisation that could destabilise the situation with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

“We are simply building our army,” he said. “We started building it from scratch, when the budget was only 50 million laris. Naturally, against the background of what we had three years ago, it now looks as though we are making big steps toward militarisation. That is not the case. We are simply creating a small, but a very mobile army that will be capable of performing any tasks the country will set it.”

Political expert Archil Gegeshidze said the rise in defence spending should be put in context, arguing, “Georgia has lagged behind the two other countries in the region in both the quantity and quality of its equipment”, and it needed to professionalise its army in order to move towards NATO membership.

“In my opinion, the rise in Georgia’s defence budget is not linked to the similar tendency in Armenia and Azerbaijan,” he said. “Georgia simply didn’t have effective armed forces up until now.”

Another analyst, Paata Zakareishvili, was more doubtful, saying he was concerned money was being spent on defence instead of the Georgia’s urgent social needs.

“In a country where a lot of social problems have built up, where there is a need to fight poverty on a national scale, it is worrying that we have this kind of military budget,” he said. “It’s obvious that the state is more worried about its army than about social programmes or education.”

The government’s decision encountered almost no resistance in parliament, with opposition deputies only demanding more details on how the massively increased budget - now accounting for six per cent of the country’s GDP and equivalent to spending on social and healthcare programmes - would be spent.

“At the meeting of the defence committee, I was the only one apparently interested in this information and that’s not normal for a democratic state,” Pikria Chikhradze of the New Rights parliamentary faction told IWPR. He said the issue of military spending was taboo for the opposition.

The general secretary of the governing National Movement party, David Kirkitadze, said the budget was as transparent as could be expected.

“Naturally, something that is a military secret cannot be made known to everyone,” said Kirkitazde. “However, some information such as the quantity of weapons we’ve bought and the number of military personnel we have is public and can be obtained by anyone interested.”

Irakly Sesiashvili, who heads a non-governmental organisation Justice and Freedom, disputed this, saying that the defence ministry had not accounted for large sums in its new budget. He cited a report by the country’s audit chamber that uncovered major irregularities in the ministry’s finances in 2005-2006 under former minister Irakly Okruashvili.

Irakly Aladashvili, military commentator with the Kviris Palitra weekly newspaper, has also investigated suspicious discrepancies in the prices paid for military equipment.

“In early 2005, 15 heavy trucks were bought in Ukraine for 42,000 dollars each. Two months later, the same vehicles were purchased at the price of 52,000 dollars each, ten thousand dollars more. Ten lorries were bought, which means the damage done to the budget was no less than 100 thousand dollars.

“I think there should be a structure - something like a general inspectorate - set up under the president, the commander-in-chief, to monitor what is going on and report back to the president,” he said.

Kezerashvili told IWPR that his ministry was about to adopt a new automated management system that would ensure transparency of expenditure, as required by its commitments under its Individual Partnership Action Plan for NATO.

Georgia has already presented in Brussels a “strategic defence review” that envisages a long-term budget for the ministry. The ministry has also published details of the increased military expenditure on its website. The report lists sums assigned for all major items, making only one of them secret - “purchases of weapons, military equipment and materials”. Defence officials say the secrecy is a precautionary measure.

“This is to prevent Russia from influencing our potential arms supplier partners and undermining our plans,” Nika Rurua, deputy chairman of the parliament’s national security and defence committee, explained to IWPR.

Despite reassurances that the increased military spending is designed to professionalise the army and is not aimed at the separatist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the territories themselves are not convinced.

“People in South Ossetia feel that Georgians contradict themselves in what they say, and what they do," Bela Valieva, a resident of the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali, told IWPR. “On the one hand they speak about peaceful resolution to conflicts, and on the other they increase their military budget all the time.”

Boris Chochiev, deputy prime minister of the de facto government of South Ossetia and the main negotiator with Tbilisi, went further, blaming western countries for the situation. He told IWPR that his government constantly raised the issue of Tbilisi’s military build-up with the international community but did not get a “sensible answer”.

“We are astonished at the position of countries that are calling on us to disarm while at the same time they are arming the aggressor, Georgia,” he said. “It’s not Georgia that is increasing its budget. The money is being given them by the West.”

Tbilisi analyst Archil Gegeshidze said that the Georgian government should make a greater effort to convince Abkhazia and South Ossetia that the increase in spending was not aimed at them. “We have to explain to the other side that the strength of our armed forces is not directed against their interests but serves the interests of our common state,” he said.

Zakareishvili is worried that the increased spending is undermining trust. “We are basically sending a clear message - that the military is important for us in resolving the conflicts,” he said.

Koba Liklikadze is a military analyst with Radio Liberty in Tbilisi. Veriko Tevzadze, a journalist with 24 Hours newspaper in Tbilisi and Irina Kelekhsayeva, an independent journalist in South Ossetia, contributed to this article.

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