Anatol Lieven, Senior Associate

Eurasia Net, June 6, 2001

No-one who knows the Georgian Army can have been seriously surprised by the mutiny which occurred on May 25-26. If a country treats its soldiers the way Georgian soldiers have been treated in recent years, this is what it can expect. Many African regimes have treated their militaries in a similar manner over the years – and the result has been the military coups and attempted coups which have racked that unhappy continent.

Despite some initial alarmist statements by Georgian officials, the latest incident in Georgia stopped well short of being an attempted coup. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives]. It was really only an armed protest, or military strike, directed above all against the non-payment of wages and other economic issues. On May 25, a battalion of 400 National Guardsmen seized a base of Interior Ministry troops at Mukhrovani, about 25 miles from Tbilisi, and were joined by soldiers at that base. The protestors claimed – very credibly – that pay for officers in the unit was 14 months in arrears, and that the food and living conditions of the soldiers are appalling. They agreed to return to duty the next day, after President Eduard Shevardnadze went to the base to negotiate with them in person, and promised that money would be forthcoming and that no action would be taken against the leaders of the protest.

But if this was not a coup attempt, even a strike by men with tanks and machine guns is likely to carry greater weight, and bring greater destabilization, than a strike by men with garbage trucks or mailbags; and given Georgia’s lamentable experiences from 1990 to 1994, any military action of this kind is bound to cause serious alarm. On May 26, the military protest seems to have contributed to the radicalism of a violent demonstration by nationalist demonstrators in Tbilisi demanding the removal of Shevardnadze.

As a matter of fact, the armed rebellions and coups which took place in the early 1990s are probably one reason for the condition of the Georgian army today, which is miserable even by post-Soviet standards. It would appear that the Shevardnadze administration decided that to reduce the risks of future military unrest, the armed forces in Georgia would be divided among several different state institutions.

According to a Western diplomat, interviewed in April 2001, "Georgia has a huge number of police and Interior Ministry troops relative to its population, and these are much better supplied than the Army, which is in a dreadful state…The Georgian administration continually tells NATO officials that it wants to create a leaner, meaner fighting machine, but in fact they haven’t even managed the basics. Conscription last year was about 25 per cent of the target figure."

Moreover, unlike the police or border guards, the role of soldiers does not allow them to extort money from the population under cover of their official and legal duties – other than through outright theft, and this practice was stamped out across most of Georgia by Shevardnadze in 1994-95. Since then, if an Army officer wants to use his position so as to supplement his official income (or rather, most of the time, non-income), then his only option is to prey on the Army itself; and this has indeed been happening on a massive scale.

According to one former private, Mikheil, who served from 1998 to 2000 in a communications unit stationed in Tbilisi: "We saw that food of all kinds arrived at our base, was put into the storerooms, and then disappeared, mostly taken by the officers. Two soldiers in the commissariat worked for the officers and stole everything for them. Maybe the officers sold the food, maybe they just ate it themselves with their families, because after all they too are not paid for months and years on end, and they have to live somehow. As a result, we soldiers received very little to eat from the Army. Those of us from round Tbilisi were fed by our families, and we helped the others…After all, we are all Georgians, and maybe for that reason things are not so cruel for soldiers in our army as they are supposed to be in the Russian Army. We do help each other…

"But most of the soldiers from other regions were sent home on ‘leave’ so their families could feed them. My unit was supposed to be 400-strong, but when I was there it never had more than 100 men in it. And that was over a year ago, and in Tbilisi. For units in other parts of Georgia, things were always worse, and now they’re supposed to be very much worse…"

As a result of all this, no-one in Georgia – including the Army command – has any clear idea just how many soldiers Georgia would really have available in a crisis. Asked whether as in the Russian Army, the officers and soldiers regularly stole and sold their unit’s gasoline, Mikheil replied; "No, because we had almost none in any case. While I was with the unit, we barely moved from our base, and never took part in exercises of any kind…There were officers who wanted to train us properly, teach us to shoot, do exercises with other units. But there was no money for this, and apparently no desire among the senior officers. So in the end nothing ever happened."

The inability or unwillingness of the state to finance or even feed its Army means that local units are in danger of coming under the influence of powerful local figures who provide subsidies of their own – especially if the soldiers mostly have to be locally recruited so that their families can feed them. Thus, in the Autonomous Republic of Ajaria I was surprised to find that despite a history of serious tensions between the local ruler, Aslan Abashidze, and the Shevardnadze administration, senior officials in Batumi were not worried by the presence of an Georgian Army brigade in Ajaria. But as one of them explained, given that most of the soldiers are from Ajaria, and that the unit receives considerable financial and other support from the Ajarian government, he saw no reason to fear that it would ever act against that government.

Ajaria is peaceful and indeed mildly prosperous by Georgian standards. Much more serious is the situation in Mingrelia, from where Georgian guerrillas continue to launch raids into Abkhazia, and where much of the local population – though fervently Georgian nationalist - remains faithful in memory to the late President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, and bitterly hostile to President Shevardnadze and his followers. In the context of any future succession struggle, the local ties of Georgian troops in this region could have serious consequences for peace and stability. In October 1998, a serious mutiny of Georgian troops in Mingrelia did indeed occur, led by former "Zviadists."

The result of all this is a Georgian Army which appears incapable of performing basic security tasks. Neither the Army nor the Border Guards can prevent the movement of Chechen guerrillas to and from the war in Chechnya (although it must of course be said that this is not occurring on anything like the scale claimed by Moscow). Nor are they in a position to take over the Russian base in Akhalkalaki and provide equivalent economic opportunities for the local population. Nor, to judge by the events of May 1998, could they come to the help of the Georgian population of the Gali region of Abkhazia if the Abkhaz are provoked by Georgian guerrilla attacks into driving them out again. Indeed, as in so many parts of the world, the biggest threat posed by the Georgian Army in its present form is not to Georgia’s enemies, but to the internal stability of Georgia itself.

And as elsewhere in the world, to the dangers this creates is added the disillusionment of the population at large with the local variant of "democracy." In Georgia, as in most of the rest of the former Soviet Union, the decade since the Soviet collapse has brought not progress and prosperity, but greatly increased economic hardship and a drastic decline in public services. The outward forms of democracy cover a multitude of official abuses and corruption. Elections take place, but are usually rigged to a more or less open extent by those already in power.

As a result, the commitment of the masses to defend "democracy" in a crisis may prove very weak. As the issue of successions to the present leadership begins to emerge in many of the former Soviet republics, these dangers are likely to become very real. If the former Soviet south is headed for another period of coups and instability, this will not only be very bad for the region itself, but will pose severe challenges for the political and economic policies of Russia, the United States, Turkey and other outside powers, and for the management of relations between them.