Monica Ellena in Tbilisi -
For over a week, the vast plain outside Tbilisi has echoed with the heavy rumble of artillery, gunfire, and explosions that accompanied the largest military drill in Georgia’s independent history.
About 600 US and Georgian troops and 16 combat vehicles are engaged in the 'Noble Partner' joint exercises aimed at strengthening the interoperability of the armed forces of the former Soviet republic with Nato forces. But for the newly-installed Minister of Defence Tinatin Khidasheli, equipment and men are not the only important factors.
“[The drill] has a huge political importance for us because every training of this kind makes us believe that the partnership that we have for a number of years…with United States and Nato and European allies continues, grows and gains more strength than ever before,” she told bne IntelliNews in her first interview since her appointment on May 1.
Keeping dialogue open with international partners, including constant training, is essential as “Georgia is isolated and alone cannot solve any of its problems,” the minister argues.
A former ally of Mikheil Saakashvili during the Rose Revolution, Khidasheli later distanced herself from the former president, who is now in self-imposed exile in Ukraine with criminal charges hanging over him in Georgia. In 2005 she joined the Republican Party, which is now part of the current ruling coalition Georgian Dream (GD), and went on to be become the first female Minister of Defence in the former Soviet Union.
For her, like her predecessors, integration with Nato and the European Union, with which Georgia signed key political and trade deals last June, is a one-way ticket and “nothing is going to change that”.
Georgia has long hoped to join the military alliance. Nato has already agreed in principle that Georgia should one day become a member, but the process has been delayed by member countries’ reluctance to provoke Russia, which has repeatedly stated that such a move would threaten its security.
The government stressed that the exercises “are not directed against any particular threat”, but the drill inevitably raises the question about the reaction in Russia, whose relations with Tbilisi have been strained since the 2008 war over South Ossetia.
“It’s not for me to guess or speculate what is the reaction in Moscow,” says Khidasheli. “We are not preparing for war, with anybody, [and] any of these activities, whether military trainings or political cooperation with either Nato or European Union, are not against anybody. They are to strengthen this country.”
In the 1990s Nato opened a window of opportunity for Tbilisi to reach out to the world beyond what had been the Iron Curtain. But Georgia failed to take it and fell into a spiral of corruption and civil war.
A wave of reforms since 2004 changed the face of the country, and today Georgia ticks all the boxes – accountability, transparency, and democracy – and Georgian troops have built up their combat experience.
In 1999 Georgia joined the Nato-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. Later, it sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, where, by May 2015, it had 860 troops – the largest per-capita troop contributor and largest non-Nato force sent to the country. Georgian troops also served in the peacekeeping force in the Central African Republic and Mali and the counter-terrorism maritime surveillance operation in the Mediterranean.
Still, membership remains a hard sell to some alliance members. After the 2008 conflict, which broke out shortly after Georgia’s Nato membership application was put on hold, Moscow strengthened its hold over Georgia’s breakaway regions. In light of the current conflict in eastern Ukraine, some members, including heavyweights like France and Germany, see Georgia more as a potential security consumer than a security contributor.
After the Nato summit last September, disappointment was obvious, and today impatience is growing. On May 18th the Nato Parliamentary Assembly in Budapest affirmed support for the alliance’s enlargement, and David Usupashvili, speaker of the Georgian parliament and Minister Khidasheli’s husband, said “it is critical that the open door policy does not become a revolving door policy where aspirants are stuck”.
Instead of a much longed for membership action plan (MAP), Georgia received a substantial package aimed at enhancing the nation’s defence capabilities and increasing the interoperability of Georgia’s armed forces by involving them in more Nato trainings and exercises. To this end, Georgia will host a military training center.
“All the preparatory work is finished, and that’s why we’ll have a mission [in May] to talk about the implementation phase,” says Khidasheli, who expects the centre “to be on the ground before the end of the year”. There is not yet “a final yes” but the “location has been already been identified”.
Russia’s soft power
Although the government remains committed to Georgia’s westward orientation, Khidasheli admits to concern about Russia’s increasing soft power in the region, which portrays the West as sinful and alien to Georgia’s traditional values.
“It is a concern for the entire Europe, not just for Georgia,” she says.
A recent survey by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) showed a shift in the attitude towards Russia. While roughly two-thirds of Georgian still supported Nato and EU membership, 26% agreed that “Georgia will benefit more from abandoning Euro-Atlantic integration in favor of better relations with Russia.”
But Khidasheli does not think it will work.
“In today’s Georgia there is almost no family who has not experienced loss because of the Russian soldiers occupying Georgia,” she says. “This generation has very strong opinions about the role our history plays in our aspirations to go back to the European family.”
“We are building a liberal democratic state and that’s the answer to most of the questions this country had for the last decade,” she said. “We also need to talk honestly to people about the steps and stages we need to take to reach our goals.”
It also requires keeping Georgia out of war, she adds. Nevertheless, beefing up defence spending may be unavoidable. Khidasheli hopes to sign a much-discussed deal with France to purchase an air defence system soon.
Analysts argue that raising defence spending will be crucial to making the strategy credible.
“The current strategy appears to be a more official version of, essentially, praying for a good outcome,” says Michael Cecire, associate scholar at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. “The Georgian army is increasingly sophisticated and reportedly well-regarded by its Western peers, but it is much too small and under-equipped (at least for territorial defence) to serve as an effective conventional deterrent. The Georgian military budget is paltry, coming in at under $300mn for 2015 at current exchange rates, compared to well over a billion in the late 2000s. If territorial defence is a genuine concern, Georgia needs to rethink its budget, force structure, and even where it's buying its arms.”
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