Dying for dollars

Georgian military spending has risen dramatically in the past few years, largely due to funding from Washington.

Still, in a country that is attempting to recover from both war and a devastating financial crisis, many complain Tbilisi is modernizing the army at the expense of direly needed public services.

“For sure our army is re-arming. It’s getting money from the United States,” says Giga, a former chief detective in the country’s criminal police, who asked that his family name not be used.

“I really think our government is spending far too much money on upgrading our military,” continued Giga. “We don’t need to be spending so much because it won’t help us fight the Russians anyway.”

Giga never thought, after serving for 26 years in the police force, that one day he’d be working as a taxi driver. But like many of his colleagues, there is no room for him when, with the help of American money, a wide-scale reform of the armed forces would is taking place.

The same fate is shared by many others of his generation who’d chosen a career in the army. Indeed, military expenditure figures are rather staggering.

From 2002 to 2007, Georgia’s military budget increased more than 50 times, from $18 million in 2002 to $780 million in 2007. At the end of 2008 it was doubled. Today, the figure stands at more than $2.4 billion – 17% of the country’s gross domestic product. It begs the question why the Georgian administration is spending so much on the military. Especially now when the country, like the rest of the world, is trying to overcome a crippling financial crisis.

“This is money laundering, it’s not Georgian money. It’s money the United States is giving us specifically for military purposes and they have their reasons,” insists Victor Caava from Institute of Globalization.

“Saakashvilli is also using the war and army to draw attention away from problems at home, like dealing with the financial crisis. He’s cancelled lots of social programs and pension funds and prices have gone up.”

Caava asks, “Can a person live on $50 a month?”

He answers, “Of course not.”

One year after the South Ossetian conflict, Georgians are still struggling to come to terms with their new reality. It’s not just economic hardship, it’s also a conflict that’s separated them from their former friends.

There are two emotions in Georgia today: sadness and anger and above an overwhelming sense that the war is not over but just frozen and that the potential exists for a new crisis to erupt anytime.

But it’s not a crisis that former Georgian minister of defense, Giorgi Karkarashvilli supports. Karkarashvili was severely disabled by a gunshot wound in Moscow in 1995. He’s joined the opposition movement against President Saakashvilli.

“I don’t think Georgia is preparing for a new war, but at the same time Georgia will not tolerate aggression and occupation,” says former military commander. “The Georgian army can’t be used to solve political issues because if you’re talking about military strength, then how can you compare the Georgian army with the opposing side?”

But the figures suggest a different story, which is why on the lips of so many Georgians is a silent prayer: That a year from now they won’t again be lighting candles again for another war.