While a struggle is intensifying in Georgia between Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and President Mikheil Saakashvili over investigations and arrests of former senior government officials, a battle over the nomination of the country’s top military officer appears to be resolved.
Since November 7, when 32-year-old Brig. Gen. Giorgi Kalandadze, a hero of the 2008 war with Russia, was arrested on charges of alleged physical abuse of soldiers, Georgia’s military has been without a permanent chief of staff.
As commander-in-chief, President Saakashvili could have appointed a new chief of staff, but he remained a staunch backer of Kalandadze, denouncing the charges against the brigadier general. Saakashvili also spoke out against the arrest of former defense minister Bacho Akhalaia and nearly a score of other former officials, characterizing the moves as part of a witch-hunt by the Ivanishvili government.
The arrests prompted the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to caution Georgia, as a member-candidate, to leave politics out of its investigations. Georgia is the largest non-NATO member present in Afghanistan, with 1,568 soldiers on the ground, mostly fighting alongside US troops in Helmand province.
Tension in Tbilisi seemed poised to ease on December 3, when the Defense Ministry announced that the Ivanishvili government and President Saakashvili had jointly agreed to name Col. Irakli Dzneladze, a military attaché at the Georgian Embassy in Ukraine with 20 years of experience in the armed forces, as the next chief of staff.
In an earlier interview with EurasiaNet.org, Defense Minister Irakli Alasania had said that he was ready to compromise with Saakashvili over the appointment. The ministry’s former pick – 52-year-old Deputy Chief of Staff General Vakhtang Kapanadze, a onetime presidential advisor now serving as acting chief of staff – was rejected by the president. “[W]e are going to get this behind us,” pledged Alasania, a former UN ambassador under Saakashvili, referring to the nomination spat.
The cooperation apparently extends to Gen. Kalandadze himself, now out of jail on bail. “General Kalandadze is actually working with me. ... We are consulting [with] him and he is consulting with us because he has experience in the army,” said Alasania, describing the general as a victim of Saakashvili’s “political games.”
News of the compromise comes on the eve of a December 5 meeting in Brussels of the NATO-Georgia Commission, a mechanism for bilateral consultation about Georgia’s much-desired accession to the Atlantic Alliance.
Saakashvii supporters have argued that the arrests soured Georgia’s ties with NATO, and that Kalandadze’s detention led to the cancellation of a Tbilisi visit last month by senior NATO military strategists.
Alasania claims that the NATO visit has been rescheduled for early next year, and that relations with the Alliance have been smoothed over. “I made sure that they understood that selective justice ended in Georgia on October 1 [when the Georgian Dream coalition won Georgia’s parliamentary elections],” he said. “It is going to be clearer to our allies what is happening.”
Despite the prolonged appointment process of the chief of staff, some Georgian military specialists maintain there was never any danger of a split in the army between pro-Saakashvili and pro-Ivanishvili camps. “The former head of the joint chiefs of staff didn’t enjoy enough authority that there would be some kind of division,” noted Irakli Aladashvili, the editor of Arsenali, a military analysis journal. Kalandadze had served as the head of the joint staff for less than a month before his arrest.
Since the 2003 Rose Revolution, the role of the chief of staff of the armed forces has been largely symbolic. Most major decisions concerning the military have been made in recent years by the defense minister, said Irakli Sesiashvili, chair of parliament’s Defense Committee and a member of the Georgian Dream coalition.
Alasania told EurasiaNet.org that he intends to alter current practices, saying he wants to see greater civilian control over the military and strengthened parliamentary oversight over military spending.
The arrests of Kalandadze, Akhalaia, and 4th Brigade Commander Zurab Shamatava (also for alleged abuse of soldiers) have been unpleasant for the military, noted Sesiashvili, a former longtime soldiers’ rights activist. “For me, it is difficult to have such a situation that the police arrest such [high-ranking] officers,” he said. “But there is a principle [of] the rule of law.”
The international outcry over the arrests, Alasania said, is an indication that the new government has a “perception problem” in the West. He added that officials in Tbilisi are attempting to address it.
“[T]he NATO integration process is even more solid than ever,” he insisted. Government reforms aimed at “democratization and the de-monopolization of … politics, media and business … will help us get Georgia more closely embedded into the European community.”
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist who also works as editor of Investor.ge, a monthly publication by the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia.