Georgia is fast becoming a center of attention for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but government officials and foreign military advisors cite a range of problems that complicate Tbilisi's attempt to become a member of the Atlantic alliance. Among the concerns: inadequate long-range planning and inattention to budgetary detail.
President Mikheil Saakashvili has expressed hope that Georgia could become a candidate for NATO membership by 2006. Since Saakashvili became president in January 2004, NATO-Georgian contacts have expanded rapidly. Numerous top-level NATO officials have visited Tbilisi over the past year, a NATO liaison officer and various foreign advisors are attached to the Georgian Defense Ministry, and a new transit agreement, signed on March 2, allows supplies destined for NATO forces in Afghanistan to cross Georgian territory. The scheduled May 10 visit of US President George W. Bush to Georgia is expected to further encourage Georgia's NATO integration aspirations.
To attain the NATO goal, however, Georgia must first undertake a comprehensive modernization and democratization of its defense establishment, carried out under a self-imposed Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP). Once Georgia meets its IPAP goals, the next step would be a Membership Action Plan, or MAP. Whether Georgia can meet these objectives and, if so, how effectively remains an issue that follows government officials, and worries international observers and advisers.
In a recent interview with EurasiaNet, Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili acknowledged that much remained to be done before a MAP could be realized by 2006. Making army brigades NATO-ready is the country's top priority, he said. Other immediate priorities include; bringing Georgia's air-surveillance system in line with NATO standards; improving transparency in the logistics and public procurement departmentstraining procurement, counting equipment and soldiers; creating a career development program for soldiers, and merging Georgia's navy with its coast guard.
Western diplomats and military advisers in Tbilisi are generally cautious on Georgia's prospects for meeting its 2006 deadline for NATO membership. "Not with the progress they are making right now," one source, who requested anonymity, stated. He believed that NATO officials were of the same mind.
Okruashvili concedes that the challenges are immense, but nonetheless argues that considerable headway is being made. "We won't achieve all of the objectives, but there will be radical progress."
"My greatest problem is time," he went on to say. "We are in a hurry. We lost almost 10 years."
Other security officials agree. "I know the mess," Georgian National Security Advisor Gela Bezhuashvili said. "I was in the Ministry of Defense for four years. There was no fuel, no ammunition. The stockpiles were empty. Weapons, machines, tanksthey were all in a disastrous position."
In the rush to reform, Okruashvili, who has served as defense minister since December 2004, has already come under a barrage of criticism for his role in implementing changes. Okruashvili, to give one example, has been accused of reversing earlier progress in establishing civilian control over military institutions. He has also come under fire for reportedly haphazard spending on weapons from countries like Ukraine and the Czech Republic.
Particular criticism has been leveled at his personnel moves, including his decision to accept the resignations of the entire General Staff on the eve of an official visit to Tbilisi by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in February. At the time, Georgian media outlets portrayed the decision as a political tactic designed to remove civilian and military service heads loyal to former Defense Minister Giorgi Baramidze.
For Okruashvili, however, it all comes down to housekeeping. "There was not a person around me who was results-oriented and it's nonsense to keep people who aren't results-oriented. It's easier to find someone new and give them a chance," he said. "I can say I brought in people I trust."
Observers, however, say the constant turnover of senior ministry officials and the General Staff poses the largest obstacle to a smooth transition for Georgian military. Okruashvili and his chief of the General Staffnot to mention numerous replacements below themconstitute Georgia's fourth set of civil-military leaders since the November 2003 Rose Revolution.
The military budget is another concern. Recently adjusted, the Defense Ministry's budget currently stands at 317 million lari, or roughly $173 million, according to Deputy Defense Minister David Sikharulidze. The sum is a sizeable increase from the originally planned 137 million lari, or $74 million. Funds from the government's privatization campaign, as well as revenue generated by the ongoing anti-corruption campaign, reportedly account for the increase, but Sikharulidze admitted that the budget "should be managed more transparently."
Some Western observers suggest that the increased cash flow has not encouraged planning for the budget's effective distribution. "Okruashvili's access to funds is impressive," one Western military advisor said. "He's creating a paper line: Self-propelled artillery, T-72 tanks, helicopters, infantry-fighting vehicles
Theresa Freese is a freelance journalist and political analyst who has been conducting research on unresolved conflicts in the South Caucasus since 2003.