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Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Georgian Army

Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili inherited a non-army when he came to power in 2004. Ranks were sold, soldiers were underfed,under-equipped and under-trained.

"In my two years of duty (1995-97)I fired my gun twice. We had no bullets," my friend Beso says. "For two years, all we did was march." On a salary of about 3 dollars a month, Beso was expected to buy his own uniform.

When Saakashvili became president, he made restoring the country's territorial integrity his first priority and revamping the military a top priority. By 2007, Georgia had the highest average growth rate of military spending in the world, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The total defense budget of 2007 was GEL 1.271 billion (about USD 765 million) or 6% of the GDP. Two months before the August war, parliament proposed a defense budget increase of GEL 1.395 billion.

Despite recommendations from the International Security Advisory Board (ISAB) to cut back the total manpower of the armed forces from what was in 1998, 38,000 to an optimum level of 13,000 - 15,000, Saakashvili established an armed forces of 33,000 professional servicemen and 100,000 reservists.

Maybe that's fine on paper, but during the August war, I saw how busloads of reservists were called into Gori, many in tennis shoes and ill-fitting uniforms to await orders to be cannon fodder. Meanwhile, Georgian troops were hanging out near the front lines, distraught and exhausted, while the officers were trying to figure out their orders over cell phones, sometimes asking locals for directions.

While today's Georgian army is a far cry from the decrepit institution Beso served in back in 1995, you cannot build an army in 5 years. Chris Chivers has a very good story about this in the NY Times.


Anonymous said...

Just curious, if Georgia abandoned the idea of having an army and instead built good police force, fire fighting and ambulance corps - I suspect they would be much more beneficial to the country. All they need is a police force to deal with the kind of problems they have, an army for a country of less than 6 million makes no sense, without outside investment they could not even afford a military.


paul rimple said...

Well, Switzerland has an army. But the argument is that NATO membership does more harm than it could good. All the money dumped into the military to reach NATO standards could have been spent on improving the impoverished social sector on one hand, while antagonizing Russia - the largest neighbor - has severe consequences, as we've seen.

The other question is why have an army at all if it will never be able to stand up against Russia, which leads us back to the necessity of NATO. Therefore, the next question - does NATO have the stomach/means to confront Russia?
The answer to that appears to be a resounding "no".