US support for a military reorganization effort is playing an increasingly central role in Georgia's overall reform campaign. Some political observers in Tbilisi argue that the Defense Ministry overhaul needs an enhanced civil-society component, otherwise progress made in transforming Georgia's armed forces into a NATO-friendly military could be lost.
For the past two years, the Georgian Train-and-Equip Program (GTEP), a $64-million initiative to create and train three battalions and one mechanized company, has been the centerpiece of US military support to this strategically placed country. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Now, following the conclusion of that program last April, public attention is focusing on the task of overhauling the defense bureaucracy itself - an undertaking coordinated by Cubic Corporation, a San Diego-based defense services contractor.
Under terms of a $15-million, three-year contract, 14 US military veterans with lengthy experience working within the NATO framework are overseeing the restructuring of the Ministry of Defense and General Staff. The aim is to introduce "Western operating systems and general doctrines" to support GTEP units, making the Georgian military more NATO-compatible, according to the US embassy.
But within eight months of Cubic's arrival in Georgia, local skepticism about the reorganization process has emerged. Reports have begun to circulate within Georgia's military establishment that Cubic takes a backseat in areas to which it is looked for leadership, according to one analyst. "Cubic suggests very general things and if a Georgian counterpart says something concrete, Cubic simply agrees. Cubic agrees on everything," David Darchiashvili, an expert on civil-military relations formerly with the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development in Tbilisi.
"If the government is so well-educated, why does it need Cubic?" added Darchiashvili, who was recently named as executive director of the Open Society-Georgia foundation, which is part of a philanthropic network funded by the financier George Soros. (EurasiaNet operates under the auspices of the New York-based Open Society Institute, which is also part of the Soros foundation network).
Cubic did not respond to requests for an interview about the firm's activities in Georgia.
Maj. Doug Peterson, chief of the US Office of Defense Cooperation in Georgia, conceded that the US military aid program's overall priorities are "vague." The program's three priorities are stated as ongoing support for GTEP troops, reform of the Ministry of Defense and the creation of units to provide support for the GTEP battalions. "They clarify what we want to do, but they don't tell you how to do it," he said.
At the same time, though, Peterson added, responsibility ultimately falls to the Ministry of Defense to set the pace for reform. "Everything we do is dependent on how fast the Georgian MOD (Defense Ministry) reacts and implements change. In the past, three months they've done more than in the past three years," Peterson said.
Many local analysts agree with Peterson's assessment. After Mikheil Saakashvili became president in January, he launched an aggressive anti-corruption campaign, and promoted a Defense Ministry personnel reshuffle that opened paths for the advancement of younger, NATO-oriented staff. As a result, the Defense Ministry has emerged as a "glimmer of light" in the government's reform campaign, said Irakly Areshidze, an independent political analyst based in Tbilisi and Washington. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
To make sure that such success is not squandered, more should be done to promote the principles of civil society within the reorganization process, Darchiashvili maintained. "What is this Cubic? Nobody knows . . . When such an important business is left in the hands of the military, when it gets meal-to-meal assistance, it can have some risks," Darchiashvili said. "The public somehow should be much more involved."
Despite the anti-corruption drive within the ministry, ongoing concern should focus on graft, Darchiashvili continued. "Unless some systemic changes take place, corruption will come back," he said "I wouldn't say the United States is totally ignoring this point, but because of the anti-terror war this dimension seems to have been set aside."
A public supervisory board could provide a litmus test for gauging the Defense Ministry's willingness to accept civilian oversight and public scrutiny, Darchiashvili added. "My feeling is that if the Americans supported it, then the Georgians would accept it. If not, then the Georgians will try to ignore it."
According to Peterson, civil society issues already fall under Cubic's requirement to introduce "Western doctrines." The US government plans to review the Cubic program annually; a timeline that may shorten to every six months. The program is renewable for up to five years. In the meantime, making sure that the contractors meet their obligations rests primarily on Peterson alone. "I would say that I am the US taxpayers' watchdog here in Georgia," said Peterson, who characterized the contractors' work as "very effective." Weekly meetings with partner countries' military attaches and advisor groups make up the Defense Ministry's own, internal supervisory mechanism, Deputy Defense Minister Paata Gafrindashvili said in an email interview.
By depending on such consultants and other US aid programs to modernize its army, the country may be handicapping its own reform drive, Areshidze suggested. "[F]oreign help in general should not lead Georgians to believe that they can build a . . . modern army merely with foreign, largely American assistance," said Areshidze. "Georgians must do their part. Unfortunately, so far, Georgians have not been willing to do their part."
Areshidze points to budgetary spending as one key area where the Georgian reform initiative falls short. Though Saakashvili promised to increase state military expenditures to more than 2 percent of GDP for this year, the budget presently stands steady at .59 percent of GDP.
Meanwhile, the United States is picking up the slack. Aside from ongoing military support programs covering military education, weapons purchases and crisis response training, the United States will extend $3 million in 2004 to pay the salaries of troops trained under the GTEP program -- salaries that, according to Gafrindashvili , will be the priority for the ministry budget to pay at least partly this year.
Meanwhile, even those analysts who are critical of the aid program's implementation say that the support is essential for the defense of Georgia's sovereignty. "The United States understands that to help the Georgian military is to help Georgian statehood," said Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. "They are our mentor militarily. Not as a big brother, but as a partner."
Elizabeth Owen is a is a freelance writer specializing in political issues in the Caucasus.