Georgia’s arms race

Vicken Cheterian
4 July 2007

Since the "rose revolution" of 2003-04, Georgian defence spending has effectively been increased by over forty times. The official explanation is that Georgia under Eduard Shevardnadze had practically no army, and according to the official goal of joining Nato, Georgia needs to modernise its army, train its soldiers, and build facilities for them. But observers in Tbilisi point that out patterns of spending suggest that Georgia has other projects apart from its Nato ambitions.

Vicken Cheterian is a journalist and political analyst who works for the non-profit governance organisation CIMERA, based in Geneva.

Also by Vicken Cheterian in openDemocracy:

"The pigeon sacrificed: Hrant Dink, and a broken dialogue" (23 January 2007)

"Serbia after Kosovo" (18 April 2007)

The Georgian defence ministry announced in early May 2007 that it will sharply increase its current defence budget, from 513 to 957 million lari ($304m to $567m). This escalation follows an already impressive rise in defence spending since the rose revolution. This means that since the arrival to power of Mikheil Saakashvili, defence spending has continued on an upward spiral.

According to various sources in Georgia, the additional funding will be spent on personnel, equipment, barracks and much-needed housing for military personnel. According to a military observer in Tbilisi who did not want to mention his name, "large purchases of former Soviet and Warsaw Pact equipment were made under the former defence minister. It is reasonable to speculate that in view of increased expectations with regard to joining Nato and the imminent deployment of a Georgian brigade to Iraq, equipment needs will have been reassessed." The equipment purchased included Ukrainian made BTR's (troop transport vehicles), T-72 tanks, and field-guns. "Such equipment is not Nato-compatible", says the military observer.

Another field of military spending is infrastructure, and mainly military bases. A modern, Nato-compatible barracks has just been built in Senaki in western Georgia not far from Abkhazia, and another one is under construction near Gori, a half-hour driving distance from Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. Each of these bases will have the capacity to house a brigade, with a troop-strength of 3,000.

The fact that the two new barracks are close to the conflict-zones of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has led to concerns among both the de-facto governments of those two regions and the international community that seeks a peaceful resolution to these conflicts. The current political situation in the two regions does not inspire optimism: Tbilisi has been pushing for an "alternative government" for South Ossetia loyal to Tbilisi, led by Dmitri Sanakoev, to isolate the increasingly Moscow-dependent leader of South Ossetian president Eduard Kokoity. Similarly, negotiations with Abkhazia are frozen after the introduction of Georgian troops to the Kodori gorge - the only part of Abkhazia under the rule of the Georgian government - in July 2006. The Gori base is expected to be ready by November 2007 and 3,200 troops currently deployed in the capital are planned to move there.

Also in openDemocracy on Georgia's and the Caucasus's politics and conflicts:

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia: a rough road from the rose revolution" (4 December 2003)

Neal Ascherson, "Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution's rocky road" (15 July 2005)

Thomas de Waal & Zeyno Baran, "Abkhazia-Georgia, Kosovo-Serbia: parallel worlds?" (2 August 2006)

Donald Rayfield, "Georgia and Russia: with you, without you" (3 October 2006)

Robert Parsons, "Russia and Georgia: a lover's revenge" (6 October 2006)

George Hewitt, "Abkhazia: land in limbo" (10 October 2006) David Darchiashvili is a leading military analyst, as well as the head of Soros Foundation in Georgia. He thinks that one should not be alarmed with the increase of the Georgian military spending since it was near non-existent under Shevardnadze. "If you consider the Georgian spending in the regional context, it is not too big. It will not undermine the military balance (in the Caucasus)", he says. "It is true that since the revolution the military spending has increased more than ten-folds, but the real spending in 2001 was less than 20 million lari."

The military reforms since the coming to power of Mikheil Saakashvili have been impressive: old officers have been fired and new ones recruited, and most paramilitary units have been merged with the army (a major Nato demand). The army also received significant training assistance as well as equipment from the United States military: in 2002 (that is, already under Shevardnadze), an eighteen-month "train and equip" programme with a total budget of $64 million was started to modernise four infantry battalions and one mechanised company. Georgia also received valuable equipment, such as ten UH-1 transportation helicopters from the US government. The value of the US military cooperation with the Georgian armed forces in 2007 is estimated at $34 million. As a result, some 16,000 troops are now considered trained by the US military.

Parallel to the US-Georgian military cooperation, there has been a continuous decrease of Russia's military presence. Based on the 1999 OSCE summit agreement in Istanbul, the Russian military is continuing to empty its former Soviet base in Akhalkalaki, transporting equipment and ammunition into its base in Gumri, in northern Armenia. Akhalkalaki base is expected to be emptied by the end of the year, while the Russian base in Batumi the next year. After this period the Russian presence will be limited to the CIS peacekeeping missions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Moscow is increasingly displeased to see the Nato and specifically US military presence becoming permanent in what once was part of its southern Soviet provinces. The Kremlin vehemently opposes Georgian entry into Nato. Recently, President Putin even threatened to withdraw from the conventional forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, an eventuality which would leave the European continent without an arms-control mechanism.

Despite the important reforms already achieved in the Georgian military, several problems still remain. "There is no control over state expenditures", says Tamara Chugahvili from Young Lawyers Association. "In 2006 a new state fund has been created named Fund for Georgian Army Development, yet it is not transparent. Neither is the defence budget." The first is budgetary transparency, which does not exist at the moment; the second is the continuation of keeping military units outside the control of the defence ministry: for example, the ministry of interior retained a battalion of special forces, with a capacity of up to 500 men, currently positioned near the South Ossetia conflict-zone. The Georgian authorities have also created private foundations to support the military personnel, but local NGOs complain that neither then source of donations nor the spending patterns of those structures are transparent to the public.

The recent announcement in Tbilisi to increase Georgian military participation in Iraq from 850 to 2,000 comes at a time when most European nations have already started withdrawing their troops, and the Bush administration is under political pressure in Washington to come up with its own schedule to decrease troops. Another 150 Georgian military serve in Kosovo. Georgian leaders are making the huge effort in the military domain, hoping that they will be recompensed by a Nato admission. In Tbilisi, the political elite thinks that the Abkhazia and Ossetia conflicts are the result of Russian imperialism - and not because of Georgian nationalism or misguided policies of the past - and the only way to solve them is to neutralise Russian influence. Hence the necessity for Tbilisi to enter Nato as soon as possible. They know that they will get no better support than what they get now in Washington, and they know that things will get only worse after the Bush administration ends. Will they reach their objective in the limited time that remains?

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