Cpl. Giorgi Kharaishvili, Company A, 31st Georgian Light Infantry Battalion, on patrol in Afghanistan.
Georgia lost its 16th soldier in Afghanistan this week, when Sergeant Valerian Khujadze died in a roadside bomb attack in Helmand Province. The mounting death toll has made Georgia's participation in the Afghanistan war an increasingly controversial issue in Georgia, with opposition politicians speaking out against it and soldiers trying to avoid being sent to Afghanistan.
The country's most formidable opposition figure, Bidzina Ivanishvili, does not seem to have spoken publicly about the Afghanistan mission, though he has endorsed NATO membership. Several of his political allies in his Georgian Dream movement, though, have been publicly critical of Georgia's role in Afghanistan, in a series of statements which Vladimir Socor has enumerated:
Georgian Dream’s defense and security working group chief, Irakli Sesiashvili, stated in print: “[President] Saakashvili organized a joint special operation with the Americans in Afghanistan. The [combat deaths] could have occurred because of the badly planned special operation, or due to Saakashvili’s public-relations needs.” Sesiashvili also stated on prime-time national television: “This special operation was carried out for [President] Saakashvili’s public relations needs, to honor his visit to Afghanistan." Sesiashvili is also a member of Georgian Dream’s top political team. The head of Georgian Dream’s working group on regional policies, Mamuka Areshidze, stated: “Georgian troops are now being used as cannon fodder. Armenian troops face lesser risks than do our soldiers. Our soldiers get much less pay than NATO troops".
The overall chief of Ivanishvili’s foreign policy advisers, Tedo Japaridze, must cringe at such unprofessional statements from his subordinates, but has not been heard disavowing them. Ivanishvili’s ally, reputedly US-connected Irakli Alasania, seems to face a similar problem in his party, Our Georgia-Free Democrats. The party’s vice-president, Tea Tsulukiani, stated for the “Liberali” opinion magazine, about the Afghanistan mission: “[President] Saakashvili is manipulating with this topic. [He] believes that soldiers must go to war and fight heroically. Saakashvili’s government thinks of soldiers as cannon fodder. The government should see to it that the soldiers return home.”
Meanwhile, the somewhat more fringe Labor party is seeking to hold a national referendum on Georgia's deployment to NATO, though this week the country's Central Election Commission denied their petition to do so.
Also this week, the Georgian newspaper Rezonansi published an article headlined "Are some soldiers forced to go to Afghanistan?" which alleged that some are in fact being forced to go, or heavily fined if they refuse (which is apparently legally their right, as the deployment is supposed to be voluntary. The newspaper interviewed two Georgian soldiers who (anonymously) say they were threatened with fines if they didn't go to Afghanistan. One of them:
"In May, we are leaving for Afghanistan. Before then, we are going to be trained in Germany. My family strongly objected to it, but eventually had to get used to the idea as many of my friends, whose contracts were terminated, were sued, and now they are going to be fined 14,000 lari [about 8,600 dollars]. Not being able to afford [such a fine,] I have to risk my life and take part in the Afghan mission.'
"I was recently told that I was to go to Afghanistan. I did not want to. However, I was warned that in case of refusal, my contract would be terminated, which does not suit me as: first, my salary is the only income of my family, and second, for breaching the contract, I am going to be heavily fined, which my family cannot afford," a soldier, who has been serving for the Defence Ministry on the basis of a contract for a year, told us in a priivate conversation.
"The increased number of the [Georgian] contingent to be sent to Afghanistan is sure to give rise to the problem of sending these people to Afghanistan. Therefore, if this is true, I think soldiers should make this fact public. Once it becomes known that servicemen's rights are violated, the society will react to it, it will become a high-profile issue, and a reaction of our Western partners will follow.
"Georgia is not the only country involved in the ISAF mission. That is why ! the Defence Ministry will probably encounter certain problems. Hence the need to make the problem public at least by one person. It has been reported that Bacho Akhalaia might add a clause to the contract, obliging soldiers to go to Afghanistan, whereas the mission's principle is voluntary service," Akubardia told us.
Nevertheless, Saakashvili has pledged to send an additional battalion to augment the 900-plus contingent Georgia already maintains in Afghanistan. That will amount to a total of about 1,700 troops, which would make it the largest non-NATO troop contributor to the mission in Afghanistan. Saakashvili has said that the main purpose of Georgia's deployment is to bolster its case for NATO membership, and thus is a sort of indirect protection for Georgia. Clearly some opposition politicians think that criticizing this is a smart political move; we'll see if this becomes a big issue as parliamentary and presidential elections loom.