continues to rage over how hundreds of tons of heavy
weaponry went missing in Iraq, a quieter scandal of the same kind, but involving
more assignable culpability, is unfolding in Georgia.
On Wednesday, it was announced that ammunition has gone missing from barracks in the southwestern district of Akhaltsikhe. But that's minor in comparison to other recent events.
One week ago, in a joint news conference with Security Minister Vano Merabishvili, Defense Minister Giorgi Baramidze, and Givi Targamadze, chair of the Parliamentary Committee of Defense and Security, it was announced that Georgian army munitions have been comprehensively "recycled," melted down and sold for scrap, allegedly by members of the Georgian military.
When a team from these ministries raided an "artillery-recycling facility"
in the east Georgian Dedoplistskaro district, they discovered that "the
military hardware stored there had been stolen piece-by-piece and sold as a
scrap metal," reported local Tbilisi television stations, the newspaper
24 Hours, and Resonance magazine this week.
Apparently, this facility for destroying decommissioned weaponry is a cooperative
venture between the military and a private firm, Delta. While representatives
of the center claimed they'd received the official OK for destroying the outdated
weaponry, the government now claims that the documents were forged and that
the weapons were in fact up to snuff. According to Defense Minister Baramidze,
any attempt to profit from private sales of the weapons would be tantamount
to "high treason." MP Targamadze, following the same line, declared
the need to eliminate the scheming of "these private firms together with
some of the defense officials." Some media are even speculating that the
fallout of the scandal might "reach cabinet level," and that "the
resignation of Defense Minister Baramidze is only a matter of time."
Apparently, the Delta company has earned a "shady reputation for exporting
the outdated weaponry" that it oversees under an OSCE-supervised
project for the dismantling of "hundreds of dangerously unstable bombs
and various types of artillery ammunition."
Exporting scrap metal is just one of several ways that defense officials have
profited from the general disarray and lack of motivation in the Georgian armed
forces – where the soldiers even had to buy their own uniforms – since the 1990s.
This scandal came on the heels of a somewhat more serious one, which saw two
Defense Ministry officials arrested in September over the disappearance of eight
Strela-2 man-portable anti-aircraft missile systems earlier this year. The missiles,
as well as other arms and ammunition, were spirited away from the central Georgian
Osiauri military base – which has also become the much-publicized training site
for Georgia's new civilian
Although they didn't forward any evidence, the Russians implied today that these missiles had been sold to Chechen terrorists.
Whatever the truth may be, these incidents are not reassuring. The concern
looming behind everything, here and in other CIS states, is the possibility
of radioactive or nuclear materials being stolen from the former
Soviet country and sold to terrorists. This specter
materialized in December 2002, when three containers of radioactive cesium-137
disappeared from Vaziani military base, near Tbilisi.
The new revelations are especially embarrassing for the Saakashvili government,
as it has spent the past six months or so trumpeting the strength and preparedness
of the Georgian military. Since June, the government has warned incessantly
that the army may be called upon at any moment to attack rebellious South Ossetia.
However, in the biggest engagements to date (in August), 18 soldiers were killed.
It was a huge and unexpected humiliation for the government. Saakashvili vowed
never again would such a disaster occur.
Of course, the Georgian army has taken major strides in its drive to professionalize
over the past two years. Claiming to be combating an al-Qaeda
threat from Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, American
military trainers embedded themselves in the country starting in spring
of 2002, when Eduard Shevardnadze was still in power. The change of government
has made no difference in policy; tangible American aid continues to flow in,
most recently two weeks ago when a U.S. Air Force cargo plane unloaded "93,000
lbs. of military supplies valued at over $1.1 million. The U.S. equipment included
uniform material and other supplies that would be used by Georgian troops deploying
to Iraq later this year," stated the Messenger.
Next year, the U.S. will
up its military aid to Georgia by $3 million – reaching a nice round number
of $15 million total. It also plans to train 4,000 troops and finance the Georgian
cannon fodder while in Iraq. It's ironic that, with the many internal crises
the Georgian president is always going on about, the country finds it possible
to send any of its troops on an Iraqi vacation. But that is the price of alliance,
In April, Great Britain
also funded and staffed a $50,000 military training program (with some German
help) for the Georgians. Most recently, longtime
ally Turkey has also stepped up to the plate. On Oct. 20, Georgia's western
neighbor earmarked $2 million for the Georgian National Academy, the Marneuli
military airport, marine and border forces, and the logistics battalion's general
headquarters. In addition, Ankara is also handing over $396,058 worth of goods.
According to the Messenger, these include "six Land Rovers, ten
portable radios, sixteen backup batteries and communication equipment, [for]
the Kodjori special forces and the 11th mechanized brigade." This is just
a small part of the $37 million worth of military aid Turkey has sent to Georgia
over the past six years.
Finally, Turkish Major General Yurdaek Olcan also disclosed that by year's
end "we also intend to deliver nearly 40 cars and 100 communication equipment"
to the Georgians.
However, the deprived economic situation means that corruption will always be a factor in the decisions of malnourished, mistreated soldiers and their scheming superiors. Will the American-supplied munitions someday meet the same fate as have the ones "recycled" and melted down these past couple of months?
As journalist Zaal Anjaparidze dryly put it, "[T]he actual state of affairs
in the Georgian military infrastructure obviously runs counter [to] the government's
bombastic statements about the country's defense potential."
Whether or not Saakashvili's vaunted reforms can overcome the ingrown culture
of corruption in the Georgian military, there is still much to be done before
theirs becomes a fighting force of extraordinary magnitude. 'Til then, the Russians
can just laugh off the provocations, as
they did in August when
stating that recent Georgian threats were "not even worth of commenting
[on] because of their absurdity."
A close associate of the 35-year-old Georgian president recently told me that
"Misha is a bit hotheaded, and I fear he is still intoxicated with the
power he so suddenly acquired. I don't know why he is taking this militaristic
attitude. It can't be a wise policy for the future."