A controversial pick for a top military position is raising the specter of a power struggle in Georgia's defense ministry. Last week, President MIkheil Saakashvili appointed Giorgi Kalandadze, a 32-year-old brigade general, as chief of the joint staff of the armed forces. But Kalandadze appears to be a highly political figure, reports Rezonansi newspaper. He's close to Bacho Akhalaia, the former defense minister who, as interior minister, was fired last month after the prison abuse scandal broke.
This has set up a potential clash with the new defense minister nominee, Irakli Alasania, formerly an ambassador to the United Nations under Saakashvili who then joined the opposition Georgian Dream coalition, which won parliamentary elections October 1. Rezonansi writes (via BBC Monitoring):
"At a time when the president and the [ruling] National Movement say that they will not hamper the arrival of a new [political] force which won the parliamentary election and will enable it to assume power, the appointment of a Bacho Akhalaia team member as chief of the Joint Staff in such a speedy manner came as some contradiction to the above statements and raised certain questions," says Irakli Aladashvili, editor-in-chief of the Arsenali military analytical magazine, in an interview with Rezonansi.
He says he can hardly imagine Alasania's and Kalandadze's cooperation, among others because many of Kalandadze's actions in the capacity of deputy chief of the General Staff, require to be investigated. He believes that in all likelihood, Alasania will nominate his candidate to President Saakashvili and if the president refuses to approve him, this will lead to a conflict between the defence minister and the chief of the Joint Staff.
Kalandadze does appear to have an unusual career path: the brigade he commanded during the 2008 war (when he was 28), suffered more losses than any other in that war. And yet, over the next four years, he rose from the rank of captain to brigadier (i.e., one-star) general. Aladashvili again:
The 4th brigade led by Kalandadze suffered the greatest loss in the 2008 war. This brigade lost all tanks, the entire artillery, as well as infantry vehicles. When such a commander is speedily promoted, this naturally raises a lot of questions... [ellipsis as published]
"All this needs to be investigated, starting from the August war and later. His activities as deputy chief of the Joint Staff needs to be looked into as well - the personnel policy, the procurements of weapons, or the way trainings and drills were organized. Kalandadze was seriously associated with Bacho Akhalaia and if certain complaints arise regarding Akhalaia's tenure as defence minister, whether this be in connection with procurements, his commands or dismissal of staff, Kalandadze's role in all this should be considered as well.
The paper says that Georgian Dream is considering nominating another figure, Vakhtang Kapanadze, for that position once Alasania assumes his position, possibly setting up a power struggle.
Military analyst, Giorgi Tavdgiridze, estimates this fact as a political decision; he thinks that the appointment of Kalandadze on this post serves the UNM’s political interests.
Tavdgiridze thinks that this decision will not make any disruption within joint forces, he added that President could be criticized for appointing “such a young person to this post.”
For what it's worth, Alasania has given his support for Georgia's potentially most controversial policy, its heavy involvement in Afghanistan: "We have the firm position on that matter; our armed forces will remain in Afghanistan until the mission is completed," he said after being appointed.
And Saakashvili said on Friday that Georgian Dream's election victory could improve Georgia's chances to join NATO. He seemed to be alluding to the notion of a "litmus test," that NATO and the U.S. had said future defense cooperation would hinge on whether the elections were held democratically:
“After these elections and because of how these elections were conducted, we all have a historic chance to seriously move forward in terms of NATO integration,” he said.
“The NATO ministerial meeting will be held in December, where it will be possible to make new decisions. Now as never before – and I told it to the prime ministerial candidate [Bidzina Ivanishvili] – we need to work together, including with the election winner coalition [Georgian Dream], in order to move forward in terms of NATO integration,” Saakashvili said added that in remaining one year of his presidential term he would spare no efforts to get Georgia closer to NATO membership.
“We really have such an opportunity,” Saakashvili said and stressed that chances for boosting Georgia’s NATO integration increased “against the background of these elections, under condition when everyone recognized these elections as an example of democracy, under conditions when we preserved a democratic framework in Georgia, although we still have much work to do in this regard.”
So policy-wise, it wouldn't seem that the Georgian Dream team in the defense ministry would do much to dismantle Saakashvili's legacy there. One wonders, then, what's the story behind Kalandadze's appointment.