Georgian Defense Minister, Mindia Janelidze, has strongly denied his predecessor Irakli Alasania’s allegations and said that talks on purchasing air defense system from France are continuing.
Usually media shy Defense Minister Janelidze had to appear twice on TV late on Friday evening giving interviews separately to public broadcaster and Maestro TV, claiming that contrary to allegations voiced by Alasania, leader of the opposition Free Democrats party, negotiations on arms deal with France is well on track and will have “its logical conclusion.” He, however, also said that “rumors” and political “speculation” has harmed this process “to some extent.”
French ambassador in Tbilisi, Renaud Salins, said on April 3 that “discussions” continue on this matter.
Speaking at a news conference earlier on April 3, ex-defense minister Alasania claimed the government abandoned preliminary deal – a non-binding memorandum of understanding, which he negotiated in France shortly before being sacked from the cabinet five months ago and which would have paved the way to purchasing of much-needed air defense system.
Allegation that PM Irakli Garibashvili instructed in late October, 2014 then defense minister Alasania not to sign memorandum of understanding in France emerged shortly after Alasania was sacked after he accused the authorities of politically motivated arrests of one serving and four former MoD and general staff officials on October 28.
Since then the issue has been emerging time after time in political debates, becoming source of mutual accusations between FD party and the authorities with the Georgian Dream politicians and PM Garibashvili accusing their former ally Alasania of “harming the state interests” by “speculating” on sensitive defense matters.
Alasania says that the damage of state interests is a failure to finalize the deal by the end of March, which he claims, was envisaged by the non-binding memorandum of understanding, which he signed in Paris in late October despite receiving last-minute instructions from Tbilisi not to do so.
Speaking at a news conference on April 3 and then in an interview with the Georgian public broadcaster later on the same day, Alasania also claimed that the arrest of MoD officials while he was visiting Paris in late October aimed at exerting pressure on him with the purpose to dissuade him from signing the memorandum.
“History taught us that if we want to prevent war we should be prepared for war and be prepared for protection of peace… It requires defensive capabilities,” Alasania said at the news conference. “[PM] Garibashvili and [ex-PM] Ivanishvili made Georgia say no to obtaining precisely this type of defensive capabilities, because they have never lost anyone in war and they have never had sincere solidarity towards Georgian soldiers, defense and our armed forces.”
According to Alasania high-level political decision to strike a deal on purchase of air defense capabilities from France was made when French President François Hollande visited Tbilisi in May.
He says that it was an important decision signaling the end of so called de facto arms embargo, when Georgia’s western partners were reluctant to sell defensive weapons to Tbilisi after the August, 2008 war with Russia.
According to Alasania, proposals were elaborated and approved by the government and he was authorized to sign a preliminary deal – a memorandum of understanding – with the French side during his visit to Paris in late October.
He says that the air defense system in question, if bought by Georgia, would provide “protection against fighter and attack aircraft, as well as against short and medium-range ballistic missiles.” According to him training of the Georgian servicemen in handling of this system was also envisaged. While Alasania did not disclose the precise type of the system, military experts suggest that his description of the system corresponds most closely to Aster 30.
“An important part of the deal was that it would not have been a heavy burden for the [Georgia’s state] budget. We had an agreement to start paying after full installation of this system and in case of taking a long-term loan it would have cost our country only several dozen of millions annually,” he said without elaborating details.
But, Alasania says, on the eve of the planned signing, he received a phone call on October 27 from Mindia Janelidze, who at the time was secretary of security and crisis management council under the PM, who conveyed PM Garibashvili’s instruction not to proceed with the signing of the memorandum.
Alasania says that the signing of the memorandum was agreed in advance with the PM and the entire government and the most likely explanation to this last-minute instruction from the PM was perhaps an order from “informal ruler”, referring to ex-PM Bidzina Ivanishvili. Alasania said that Janelidze, who was “personally supportive” to this deal when it was discussed at the security and crisis management council, was only a “messenger” and the decision was in fact made by Ivanishvili. He also suggested that Russia’s opposition against Georgia to obtain defensive capabilities was possibly a factor behind blocking the deal.
The ex-defense minister says that he refused “to obey that wrong, illegal instruction”.
“It was not only insulting for me, but also a signal that we were losing this opportunity that was opened up for Georgia after many years of embargo,” Alasania said.
Next morning, on October 28, just before the signing of the memorandum, Alasania says, he learned about the arrest of MoD and general staff officials. He claims that with those arrests the government tried to exert pressure on him, but it failed to dissuade him from signing the memorandum.
He said that because he cannot discuss publicly all the details of the matter, lawmakers from his Free Democrats party will request the Parliament to set up an ad hoc commission with access to classified information to study all the circumstances of the issue.
“[The commission] has to study how this memorandum was signed and what our country has lost by not signing a final agreement,” Alasania said.
He also said that he is now “convinced” that no final agreement to purchase air defense system will be possible under the current government.
Defense Minister’s Response
In interviews with the Georgian public broadcaster and Maestro TV late on April 3, Defense Minister, Mindia Janelidze, dismissed his predecessor’s allegations as “absurd” and “irresponsible.”
“It is very regrettable that it turned into an issue of political speculation,” the Defense Minister said.
According to Janelidze, “consultations” on acquisition of air defense system, which he says is “one of the priorities”, are ongoing with the French side.
He said that it was one of the topics of discussion when he met his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian in Paris in late March.
“These consultations are continuing successfully and therefore results, I think, will be successful,” the Defense Minister said. “But at the same time I want to stress that our partners are expressing concern that this process is accompanied by lots of rumors and speculation, which has already damaged to some extent our interests, and those persons, who still continue speculation on this issue, bear responsibility.”
He confirmed that he had a phone conversation with Alasania in late October when the latter was in Paris.
Contrary to Alasania’s claims, Janelidze says that then defense minister was not authorized to sign the non-binding memorandum as he had no final approval from the government.
Janelidze says that he told Alasania to “delay” the signing pending final approval from the government. He denied asking Alasania to cancel the signing.
“I phoned him in order to delay for some time signing of this memorandum in order to make it in line with set procedures. Now they try to portray this phone conversation as if we are against of doing good deeds for the country – this is irresponsible and absurd allegation. We all are doing everything possible to increase Georgia’s defense capabilities, but everything has its rules and procedures, which have to be observed,” Janelidze said.
“He [Alasania] was instructed to make some corrections in the proposal, but he did not do that. By observance of procedures I mean that he should have agreed the final proposal with the government prior to signing the memorandum,” Janelidze said without going into details citing that the issue is classified as secret.
In his TV interviews, Janelidze also said that efforts aimed at purchasing air defense systems started under the previous government and “entered into its decisive phase” under the present government.
“Currently these consultations are filled with more substance and concrete issues,” he said.
“So we are making progress. Nothing has been thwarted so I call on everyone to refrain from pointless and irresponsible allegations,” Janelidze said.
Few hours after Alasania’s press conference, the Georgian Ministry of Defense reported about a meeting between Janelidze and French ambassador in Tbilisi Renaud Salins.
In a video recording, released by the Georgian MoD after the meeting, the French ambassador says: “Some discussions started last year between the government of Georgia and some French industrialists in the normal framework of our defense cooperation. I insist on the term ‘discussion’ because nothing committing was signed by the Georgian side – no agreement, no treaty, no commitment whatsoever. The only thing I can say now is that those discussions, which started last year, are continuing.”
A memorandum of understanding in general does not necessarily carry any legally binding commitment for either side.
PM Irakli Garibashvili also commented briefly on the controversy when he told journalists on April 3 that Alasania’s allegations were “irresponsible.”
“This is a lie and I regret that speculation is ongoing over issues of state importance,” Garibashvili said.