Georgian Defense Ministry remains embroiled in a scandal, which it drew itself into after releasing a highly controversial statement on death of a Georgian fighter in Ukraine, as calls mount for Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze to explain publicly who was behind the drafting of the statement.
Georgian Defense Ministry’s leadership has tried to shift responsibility for the statement from itself to unspecified, lower lever “ministry employees”, claiming that neither Defense Minister nor his deputies were aware in advance about the text which was released on December 20 and which was retracted 24 hours later after PM had to react, calling on the Defense Minister to apologize.
In the MoD statement “representatives of former authorities” of Georgia were blamed for the death of Alexandre Grigolashvili, who fought on the Ukrainian side and who was killed in combat in east of the country, because they are encouraging Georgians to fight in Ukraine. The statement also called “on the citizens not to yield to provocation and not to endanger own lives in exchange of various offers.”
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MoD did apologize with Deputy Defense Minister Levan Girsiashvili acting as a spokesman on the issue, saying that it was a “mistake” and a result of “shortcoming in management” of MoD.
Defense Minister Janelidze, who was appointed on the post less than two months ago replacing Irakli Alasania, has yet to comment and his delay to speak publicly on the issue drew criticism from some GD ruling coalition members as well.
Republican Party, which is voicing views dissenting from those of its partners from the GD coalition more and more frequently recently over various issues, has been outspoken in its criticism of MoD leadership, and the Minister Janelidze in particular.
“Instead of making explanation before the public and the Parliament why he [the Defense Minister] did such a mistake, he became obstinate and has not made a public appearance; we don’t know where the Defense Minister is; he hid from pubic; that’s not good,” GD MP Davit Berdzenishvili of the Republican Party told Imedi TV on December 22.
He also said, referring to Janelidze’s background as an intelligence officer, that now as he’s the holder of a political office, “he has to put aside his experience of working in special agencies, he’s a public figure now and he should speak to the public.”
“He has to tell the Parliament and the public why such a mistake was done, who was behind it and who was the one who initiated such a statement,” MP Berdzenishvili said.
On December 23 Defense Minister Janelidze visited two military bases; in a video released by MoD’s press office, Janelidze said his visits to military bases aim at studying “infrastructure problems persisting in our military units.”
First Deputy Defense Minister, Gocha Ratiani, was in the Parliament on December 23 at a hearing of defense and security committee. Although agenda of the hearing included issues unrelated to recent controversy it was raised by opposition Free Democrats (FD) lawmaker Irakli Chikovani.
UNM lawmakers were not present as they keep boycotting committee hearings held in Tbilisi in protest over partial relocation of Parliament from Kutaisi to Tbilisi. UNM representatives, who are not lawmakers, were present at the hearing, but they had to leave as committee chairman, GD MP Irakli Sesiashvili, opted to continue session behind the closed door when it came to discussion of recent controversy over MoD. MP Sesiashvili, who is from Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia party, argues that this sensitive issue should not become a source of “political speculation” especially when the fallen Georgian fighter is not yet even laid to rest.
“We can discuss it either by the end of this week or next week,” said MP Sesiashvili on December 23; he had a meeting with PM Irakli Garibashvili a day earlier.
In a separate comment on December 22, MP Sesiashvili said: “MoD acknowledged the mistake and apologized; all the rest aims at black PR against [MoD].”
First Deputy Defense Minister Ratiani told journalists in the Parliament that he had nothing to add to what had already been stated by his colleague Levan Girsiashvili.
“No one is going to hide; all the questions will be answered,” Ratiani said, referring to criticism that the Defense Minister is avoiding making public comments on the issue.
“No new information has been provided and no new explanations have been made,” FD MP Irakli Chikovani told journalists after the committee hearing on December 23. “I assume that the Defense Minister himself will soon make explanations.”
UNM parliamentary minority group has called for resignation of the Defense Minister and his deputies.
“We know for sure that this statement was not drafted in MoD; it was prepared in government chancellery and was then posted on MoD’s website. Therefore, first and foremost [ex-PM Bidzina] Ivanishvili, and also [PM] Garibashvili are fully responsible for that. If MoD leadership – the Minister and its deputies – don’t resign, it will be an open declaration that active penetration of Russian special agencies into Georgia’s defense, security and intelligence services is underway and it happens with blessing of Ivanishvili and Garibashvili,” UNM MP Zurab Japaridze said on December 22.
GD parliamentary majority leader, MP Davit Saganelidze, said that the minister should not be held accountable for a mistake of his subordinates.
“If any of [ministry’s] units makes a statement without prior agreeing it with the Minister, it should not become a reason for the Minister to resign,” MP Saganelidze said.
When asked on December 22 about the controversy, President Giorgi Margvelashvili called for “a bit calmer reaction.” “It leaves a very unpleasant impression when the entire political spectrum gets united against one man [referring to the Defense Minister]. I think we should give him an opportunity to voice his position. We should have a bit calmer reaction on issues like this,” President Margvelashvili said.
Amid this ongoing controversy, lawmakers from the opposition UNM party floated an idea to pass a legislative amendment giving legal status and hence same social benefits to Georgians, who fight on the Ukrainian side in the east of the country, similar to those enjoyed by veterans and their families, who fought for Georgia’s territorial integrity in conflicts in Georgia.
Endorsement of such a proposal by the Georgian authorities is highly unlikely. A senior lawmaker from ruling GD coalition, Gia Volski, said on December 22 that such a move would amount to “Georgia’s involvement in war” between Ukraine and Russia.