Just a month after a U.S. diplomat expressed to President Saakashvili concerns over his selection of Bacho Akhalaia as Defense Minister two years ago, the U.S. embassy in Tbilisi reported to Washington that although it was yet early to make a final judgment about Akhalaia’s performance, “the early signs are all positive,” according to several confidential U.S. embassy cables released by WikiLeaks.
Then U.S. deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, Tina Kaidanow, raised appointment of Akhalaia, who at the time of taking minister’s post in August, 2009 was 28, at a September 15, 2009 meeting with President Saakashvili. According to one confidential U.S. embassy cable, detailing that meeting, Kaidanow expressed concern about Akhalaia’s appointment “noting his poor human rights record” while serving as chief of prison system in 2005-2008.
“Kaidanow urged President Saakashvili to understand how this appointment had impacted on Georgia’s international reputation, and emphasized the importance of avoiding such actions in future,” the September, 2009 cable from the U.S. embassy reads.
Saakashvili defended his decision and told the U.S. diplomat that he did not understand international criticism of his ministerial pick; he also said, according to that cable, that as head of the prison system, Akhalaia had been responsible for tackling the mafia and also said that Davit Sikharulidze, whom Akhalaia replaced, failed to make “real progress on reform.” According to the same cable the Georgina President offered the U.S. diplomat “to keep an open mind regarding Akhalaia's appointment” and to provide an assessment of his performance.
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In a separate confidential cable also about the Kaidanow’s same visit to Georgia, the U.S. diplomat raised these concerns of the U.S. and Western governments directly with Akhalaia and urged him to continue reforms.
Earlier in September, 2009 then U.S. ambassador John Tefft reported to Washington about Akhalaia’s first meeting with Tbilisi-based diplomats from NATO-member states during which, according to September 2, 2009 cable, the new defense minister “wanted to make a positive first impression on the NATO diplomats, many of whom have been skeptical of the appointment.”
In an October 10, 2009 confidential cable sent to Alexander Vershbow, the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, ahead of his visit to Georgia, the U.S. embassy in Tbilisi describes Akhalaia as “the most active Defense Minister in terms of seeking advice” from the U.S. defense advisors and military attaché and “then following through with it.” It also described Akhalaia as “a better interlocutor with DOD [U.S. Department of Defense] personnel in Tbilisi” than Davit Kezerashvili, who was defense minister in November, 2006-December, 2008, and “more responsive to U.S. guidance” that Davit Sikharulidze, who served as defense minister before Akhalaia’s appointment.
It says that Akhalaia used consultations with the U.S. defense advisors to structure the MoD’s special forces unit along “rational lines”, to enact additional personnel reforms and examine the Georgian Armed Forces General Defense Plan.
The cable says that even those within the Defense Ministry previously skeptical of Akhalaia admit that unlike his predecessor “he is unafraid to make decisions”.
“In our view, the personnel changes he has made within the Joint Staff largely address weak areas and place talented, qualified people into jobs where the previous occupant was performing poorly,” the cable reads.
The cable also hailed new deputies to defense minister – Nikoloz Vashakidze (who in December, 2010 returned back to his previous post of Deputy Foreign Minister) and Nodar Kharshiladze (still holding this post) with latter described as embassy’s long-time contact and “likely the most intelligent official” in the Defense Ministry.
“On balance, we believe that, while he lacks experience, the Minister appears to be aware of his limitations, is genuinely interested in making reforms designed to make the GAF [the Georgian Armed Forces] better,” the cable reads. “Although this good performance does not change his past reports, thus far at the Ministry of Defense, there have been no reports of misbehavior or abuse attributed to the Minister.”
U.S. Arms ‘Not a Near-Term Possibility’
According to the same cable, as well as to one separate confidential dispatch, Akhalaia showed more restraint in pushing for procuring U.S. arms.
Both privately, as seen from number of leaked cables, and publicly too the Georgian officials have been pushing for acquisition of the U.S. anti-aircraft and anti-armor systems to deter any possible renewed Russian attack. As one February, 2010 cable said amid fears among Georgian officials that Russia is looking for pretext for another attack, “Tbilisi, in turn, is overly focused on weapons acquisition as an antidote to its jitters.”
But as seen from the U.S. officials’ public remarks Washington is making more focus on education and training to increase the Georgian armed forces skills before moving to possible sale of lethal weapons sometime in the future; as one December, 2009 leaked cable put it the U.S. “reoriented its focus and placed significant resources into supporting a ‘brains before brawn’ approach.”
“[Akhalaia] understands that the acquisition of U.S.-made lethal equipment is not a near-term possibility,” according to the October 10, 2009 confidential cable.
And according to a separate confidential cable, Akhalaia told NATO diplomats on September 2, 2009, that “there was no reason to discuss new arms purchases yet, but once Georgian soldiers were better trained and better educated, they would need more advanced technology.”
One cable describes Georgian MoD’s acquisition process as “perennially weak” and according to a separate, December, 2009 diplomatic dispatch Akhalaia acknowledged this weakness and said the ministry of making moves to reform procurement system.