President Saakashvili said:
• ‘Much stricter hand is needed’ in MoD
• ‘Not fully satisfied with army’s combat readiness’
President Saakashvili appointed Bacho Akhalaia on the post of Defense Minister replacing Davit Sikharulidze on August 27.
Akhalaia, who will turn 29 in October, has served as deputy defense minister since December, 2008.
Sikharulidze, who held the post of the Defense Minister also since December, 2008, was appointed as President’s foreign affairs advisor.
Sikharulidze departure from MoD did not come as a surprise, unlike his replacement.
Although the Georgian press has been recently reporting about Sikharulidze’s willingness to quit the Defense Minister’s position, Bacho Akhalaia has never been listed among potential candidates in those media reports.
Speaking at a session of National Security Council, President Saakashvili said: “Much more needs to be done and much stricter hand is needed in this agency [Defense Ministry].”
Although on the one hand Saakashvili praised Sikharulidze for his role in developing the country’s new defense doctrine and said that the Georgian army’s “combat capabilities” and “combative spirit” was improving recently, he also added: “I can not assess as fully satisfactory our armed forces’ combat training and combat readiness for deterring very dangerous aggressor’s further actions.”
Before becoming deputy defense minister, Bacho Akhalaia was chief of the prison system since 2005 and in this capacity he was a frequent target of criticism by the opposition, some human rights groups and Public Defender Sozar Subari (Akhalaia briefly served as Subari's deputy before becoming prison system chief). In particular, he was blamed by opponents for inspiring unrests in the Tbilisi prison in 2006, which was followed by riot police crackdown which led to death of seven inmates.
Speaking at the National Security Council session, Saakashvili said Akhalaia “has lot’s of enemies”.
“Georgia is the only former Soviet country, where ‘thieves-in-law’ no longer rule prisons,” he continued. “This is a huge historic gain for Georgia and it has been done by this man [referring to Akhalaia]. I have failed to do that when I was Justice Minister [during Eduard Shevardnadze’s presidency] and this man managed to do that.”
“And he has done it through carrying out very strict measures,” Saakashvili.
He also added: “While carrying out all of these strict measures, Bacho was acting under my personal instructions and support.”
Saakashvili also praised Akhalaia for his activities on the post of deputy defense minister and said that this summer he had instructed Akhalaia to build “fortification line” around Tbilisi for the capital city’s defense.
“I want to say he has done a very good work in a very short period of time,” Saakashvili said.
After becoming the deputy defense minister, Akhalaia, who is regarded to be a powerful Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili’s close associate, became in the focus of media attention in March, 2009, when then chief of staff of the armed forces, Col. Vladimir Chachibaia, was replaced. The Georgian press speculated that Chachibaia filed for resignation because of his discontent over alleged meddling of Akhalaia in the affairs of the joint staff.
President Saakashvili also said on August 27, that Georgia needed well-trained army with high combat capabilities to preserve peace and to deter Russia’s possible any further “aggressive actions.”
He, however, also said that because of “limits in the budget” and because the country “has many other expenses”, Georgia would not be able to increase defense spending next year.
Georgia’s initial 2009 defense spending stood at GEL 950 million; the sum, however, was cut by GEL 45 million after the Parliament passed amendments to the state budget in July.
Saakashvili also said that Georgia remained committed to its pledge to send troops to Afghanistan and to “deepen NATO integration”.
“We have a responsibility to defend our country from further aggression. This is something, which we can’t hand to someone else and this decision will not be taken by anyone else without us,” he said.
Bacho Akhalaia told journalists after the National Security Council session that his priorities would be increase of army’s “combat capabilities in order to help preserve peace” and deepening reforms for NATO integration.
The new Defense Minister’s brother, Data Akhalaia, is in charge of department for constitutional security at the Interior Ministry and his father, Roland Akhalaia, is chief prosecutor of Samegrelo region in western Georgia.
This is the second change in the cabinet in less than a week. PM Gilauri replaced Economy Minister Lasha Zhvania with Georgia’s ambassador to Spain, Zurab Pololikashvili.