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Ministry of Defence in the spotlight

By Messenger Staff
Monday, August 31
Over the past couple of days the Georgian Ministry of Defence has come under scrutiny from the media, politicians and the general population. This began when Minister David Sikharulidze gave a very controversial interview to the Associated Press. Two days later he was sacked and replaced by Bacho Akhalaia, a move which created real agitation among politicians, analysts and journalists.

In the AP interview Sikharulidze suggested that the Georgian soldiers now being trained by US instructors before being sent to Afghanistan could be used to defend Georgia from a possible repeat attack by Russia. A scandal erupted over this comment because the USA supports and encourages Georgia’s participation in the peacekeeping operations in the Afghanistan but does not want to irritate Moscow. The Defence Minister’s interpretation of the reason his soldiers were being trained was false and expressing it was a very awkward blunder, for which he has paid the price.

Sikharulidze’s actions could be explained by taking into account the naive and straightforward understanding of the ordinary Georgian. For a common citizen the number one priority is addressing the brutal violation by Russia of Georgia’s territorial integrity and its occupation of one-fifth of our territory. According to this understanding Georgia needs military strength to protect the country from possible further invasion by its huge neighbour. The former Defence Minister might have made the statement he did purely for domestic consumption. It is a way of explaining why Georgian soldiers will go to Afghanistan and risk their lives: the point is to train them for the noble task of protecting their homeland. Otherwise, it is very difficult for a Georgian to understand why the troops are going to Afghanistan. So maybe Sikharulidze simply said what made sense to the population, although even then it must be considered a slip of the tongue, rather than the comment of a senior politician. But whatever lay behind it, what was said was said, and it irked the Russians so much the Americans were almost forced to practically apologise to them.

Maybe this incident prompted President Saakashvili to remove David Sikharulidze from his post last Friday, although we may never know the real reason he was removed. But Bacho Akhalaia was appointed in Sikharulidze’s place, a move almost all the opposition parties and most independent analysts saw as negative. Akhalaia is notorious for the methods he allegedly used to establish discipline in the prisons when he worked in a penitentiary system. Well-known opposition member Irakli Batiashvili has stated that by making this appointment President Saakashvili has distinctly shown that he does not care about public opinion. “It has become obvious that Saakashvili needs his Army not to protect the country, but to use against his own people,” Batiashvili said.

Bacho Akhalaia moved to the Defence Ministry as a Deputy Minister several months ago and even then commentators were saying what Batiashvili is saying now. The new Minister has highlighted that his priorities will be modernising the Army, peace and NATO integration. Independent analysts however challenge Akhalaia’s commitment to these things and suggest that he does not have enough knowledge and experience in these areas. “His major function in the Army will be political control,” thinks military analyst Irakli Sesiashvili. The Republican Party says this appointment is most dangerous for the country and means the Ministry of Defence and the Georgian Army will become part of the repression mechanism and used to protect President Saakashvili’s personal security and safety. The Republicans think the move signals that Georgia has turned its back on any hope of NATO integration and they are asking friendly countries to evaluate it appropriately.

There are different opinions expressed by analysts, however. Some think that the Defence Ministry will now become further subordinate to the Interior Ministry. Some argue however that this move will balance these two organisations, while others think that it further increases the President’s power. Yet another opinion is that there is confrontation within the Government and this appointment reflects this. The recent firing of the Minister of Economy and this new appointment are seen as implying that President Saakashvili’s position has grown weaker, although who gains from this is difficult to say.

There are different interpretations of the appointment, some mutually exclusive, but one thing is clear. New Minister of Defence Bacho Akhalaia will have to work hard if he wants to change his image for the better.