Q&A with Irakli Sesiashvili
The protest of scores of servicemen from the Georgian Internal Troops, demanding better social conditions in the Army, was a blow for President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration, which pegs the army as one of its top priorities.
Officials described the move as “a provocation” hinting that it could have been triggered by a “certain third force” and refused to accept the protesting soldiers’ complaints over the bad conditions persisting in the military unit. Currently these servicemen are in one of the military units in Tbilisi and still refuse to return back to their base, Mukhrovani. An investigation is in process regarding the facts behind this desertion.
In a televised statement made on December 22, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili spoke tough about those 60 servicemen who deserted their military unit and described them as “undisciplined soldiers.”
“All the officers and soldiers who ran away [from the military unit] must be punished; all of them should go to jail,” he added.
In response to these actions, military Ombudsman of Georgia Irakli Sesiashvili announced his resignation on December 21, accusing the authorities and the Ombudsman’s Office of “inadequately” assessing the incident. Civil Georgia interviewed Irakli Sesiashvili on December 21 regarding his views on the recent incident in the Georgian army.
The ex-Military Ombudsman, who also previously chaired the military watchdog non-governmental organization Justice and Liberty, says that problems persist in other military units of the Georgia army, even in those which are located in the South Ossetian conflict zone.
Q.: What happened in Mukhrovani? What triggered the servicemen to go AWOL?
A.: This incident in Mukhrovani is not the first of this kind. The situation there was aggravated several months ago. Today it has reached its culmination. Just a few days before the recent incident about 40 soldiers went AWOL from this military unit, but the authorities were able to hide that fact and it was not revealed.
Afterwards, others also protested against bad social conditions and left the military unit. But, in my opinion, besides the social problems, the relations between officers and privates represent a problem as well.
Q.: Can you specify what do you mean by relations between officers and privates?
A.: I do not know exactly, because the soldiers do not speak, or cannot speak, or are afraid to speak about it. I witnessed one soldier crying he was so categorically against returning to the Mukhrovani military unit. I am sure that if the reasons behind this incident are not thoroughly analyzed, we will face much more serious problems.
I am sure that the commanders of that military unit are to blame for this incident. The persons responsible for this incident are high-level officials in the army. But I am afraid that [ordinary] soldiers have become the scapegoats.
Moreover, the authorities speak of a so called “third force” and a “provocation.” If we believe them, this means there is some kind of “third force” which triggers 18-year-old boys to protest. This is not true. Unfortunately, the authorities’ position is that everyone is guilty, except [the authorities].
I think at least the Commander of the Internal Troops Gogi Tatukhashvili should bear responsiblity. But he is a close associate of President Saakashvili.
Q.: Can you describe those social conditions which the servicemen were protesting against?
A.: These soldiers have not taken a bath for two months; there is not enough food. Over the last two months, they have eaten meat only a few times.
Q.: But the Mukhrovani military unit has been reconstructed recently. The President himself attended the opening ceremony of the reconstructed unit in September.
A.: The building has really been reconstructed. But whitened walls only are not enough. The soldiers do not even have cold water regularly. Heating equipment has been installed, but there is no fuel. I don't doubt that the money which was allocated for fuel has been misappropriated by someone. It is true that the food and fuel supply has really improved over the past year, but the problem is that food does not always reach its destination.
Q.: Is the situation the same in other military units?
A.: Yes. As I know, a similar situation is observed in many other military units as well.
Recently, in my capacity as Military Ombudsman, I traveled to the South Ossetian conflict zone and visited the military units of the Georgian peacekeepers there. The situation is not any better there.
I thought that I would have found better conditions in the conflict zone, because it should be a priority for the government.
But, the soldiers deployed in the conflict zone lack warm clothes; they also face this problem of [not] taking baths. Moreover, the soldiers are in an information vacuum, owing to one simple reason – they have no electricity.
This water supply problem is not even solved at the Vaziani military base [near Tbilisi].
Q.: Why weren't these problems pushed forward previously?
A.: Following my visit to the South Ossetian conflict zone, I informed the previous Defense Minister, Giorgi Baramidze, about the situation there in a written form , but...
Q.: Why does it happen?
A.: The problem is that three Defense Ministers have been replaced in past year. Each of them brought their staff with them after their appointment. Gela Bezhuashvili came and established his system of managing the Ministry. He distributed power among the different departments. Then Baramidze came and changed everything and introduced a new system of management. Now, Irakli Okruashvili came and has already fired dozens from the ministry staff.
Moreover, sometimes it seems to me that all of these Ministers care more about repairing their offices and purchasing new jeeps. Do you remember what Mikheil Saakashvili once said when he was an MP? He slammed Davit Tevzadze [Defense Minister in ex-President Shevardnadze’s government] for having two jeeps. The situation has not changed much in this regard since then.
But, of course, there are some positive trends as well in the Defense Ministry. I can say that purchases have been regulated. Corrupt deals still take place, but their scales have been reduced. Generally, the army is supplied better than before. But all this needs to be preserved and controlled.
Q.: What should be done to improve the situation?
A.: First of all, the authorities should inspect the situation in each and every military unit. I call on the military officials to summon the parents of the soldiers and show them the current conditions in the military units. I understand that this is not a kindergarten, but when you face a problem and this problem troubles the society, you should do something.
The second thing is that the society should always be watchful. I have returned to my organization [the non-governmental organization Law and Freedom], from where I will more actively work over these problems.
We still need to eradicate corruption in the army. We should also establish proper military management and properly distribute power and responsibility among the General Staff and the Ministry.