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Analysis: Georgia Reverses Decision To Cut Defense Spending

By Liz Fuller and Richard Giragosian

Among other proposed amendments to the annual budget, the Georgian Finance Ministry has submitted to parliament a request to increase defense spending for 2008 by 295 million laris ($202.8 million), or approximately 29 percent, civil.ge reported on June 24.

The additional funding will reportedly be used to increase defense capabilities and bring the armed forces even closer to NATO standards, continuing a sustained effort to forge a new military capability in line with the key NATO concept of "inter-operability." Total defense spending for 2008 was initially set at 1.1 billion laris, down from 1.495 billion in 2007, and in early May, the government announced that defense spending will be reduced over the next five years from 5.6 percent of GDP in 2008 to 2.3 percent in 2012.

Three months ago, however, President Mikheil Saakashvili told armed forces personnel that Georgia's geopolitical situation necessitates massive defense outlays to defend its burgeoning democracy, Caucasus Press reported on March 15. That assertion reflects the perception of both external and internal threats to Georgian sovereignty. Saakashvili claimed that every single lari of the defense budget is being spent on "enhancing the country's defensive capacity." He added that Georgia currently has 33,000 professional servicemen and 100,000 reservists, plus "dozens" of state-of-the-art self-propelled artillery pieces, while the number of combat helicopters has been increased by a factor of three and that of battle tanks by a factor of 10.

The procurement in recent years of new military hardware and modern weapons systems was indeed in line with Georgia's single-minded commitment to joining NATO. Georgian defense experts quoted in an analysis published by "Novoye vremya" on February 25 made the point that the high level of dependence on Soviet-era or Russian-manufactured armaments is the Georgian armed forces' greatest vulnerability. Leading specialist Irakli Aladashvili predicted that it will take a minimum of five years to complete the process of re-equipping the Georgian armed forces to meet Western standards.

Less easy to explain, however, is the Georgian leadership's ongoing defiance of Western experts' advice to cut the number of armed forces personnel -- which would in turn reduce overall defense expenditure and thus enable the government of Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze to focus on its proclaimed priority of increasing social spending. Acting on the recommendations of the International Security Advisory Board (ISAB), which was established in 1998 at the request of the Georgian government, the government slashed the total manpower of the armed forces from approximately 38,000 in the late 1990s to 20,000 in early 2004. That figure was still higher than the recommended optimum of 13,000-15,000 men advocated by the ISAB. But in late 2004, following Saakashvili's election as president and his formal pledge to restore Georgia's hegemony over the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, then-Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili announced plans for reversing the downsizing by adding a fifth brigade to the existing four. The ISAB challenged the rationale for that decision, noting, first, that it would "represent an increase of 25-30 percent" over target figures written into the Individual Partnership Action Plan Georgia concluded with NATO in 2004, and second, that it "raises questions of affordability." Saakashvili himself was quoted in May 2006 by "Jane's Defence Weekly" as saying that Georgia needs a small but highly trained army that can interact with NATO troops.

This seeming contradiction between President Saakashvili's professed commitment to pursuing NATO membership at all costs and his rejection of advice solicited from NATO and Western military experts stems from an entrenched "threat perception" among top Georgian leaders that finds expression in their sometimes strident arguments that Georgia merits NATO membership on the grounds of its vulnerability as a "front-line state" seeking to contain Russia's aspirations to expand its power and influence in the South Caucasus.

While there is of course a nugget of truth in that argument, Tbilisi's decision to further increase military spending in defiance of NATO recommendations on defense reform could negatively impact on Georgia's bid for membership. Georgia has already suffered a serious setback in failing to secure a formal Membership Action Plan at the NATO summit in Bucharest in April. The issue will be reconsidered at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in December 2008.

Copyright (c) 2008. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org



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