Caucasian Journal has interviewed two female defense ministers – Tina KHIDASHELI (Georgia) and Kristin Krohn DEVOLD (Norway). They are discussing a wide range of topics, such as gender and minority issues, compulsory military service, NGO and Civil society, military cooperation, and NATO.
The interview can be watched or read in both Georgian and English languages.
On Military Cooperation and NATO
All it started obviously in Prague during the NATO summit when then President Edward Shevardnadze has knocked on NATO doors, and declared Georgia’s aspiration of joining NATO. Now after almost 20 years from that day we are still aspiring to achieve that goal.
In 2008 was a very important cornerstone in Georgia-NATO relations when in Bucharest during the summit NATO took a decision about unavoidability of Georgia’s actual membership to NATO together with Ukraine, and for the first time in NATO’s history we’ve got a declaration which clearly states that eventually Georgia and Ukraine will become members of NATO. Again, it’s been 12 years ago, we are still under this promise but unfortunately there is no clear perspective as to when it is going to happen.
In 2014-2016 we’ve been experiencing very important developments in Georgia-NATO relations during the Wales summit. We’ve got a package that we call an alternative to a MAP [Membership Action Plan – CJ]. Absence of MAP is the main impediment to our membership to NATO. NATO substantial package that was averted to Georgia during the Wales summit identified the fields and areas where concrete NATO member states would have contributed for the success of the reforms, success of the institution-building, and success of the eventual membership of Georgia. The project actually started in 2015 – exactly at the time when I became the minister.
And we should say that the country which contributed the most, filled all its promises entirely, and where we celebrated the first success of Georgia-NATO actual real-life cooperation, was Norway.
In August 2015 we have opened the doors of JTEC – the joint NATO-Georgia training center, which is considered to be the one and, unfortunately, still the only platform, where NATO and Georgia’s paths cross on the ground in this country. After that obviously lots of other developments have happened. We’ve opened also the NATO defense school, which is another cornerstone of our cooperation, but JTEC still stands as the most vivid example of the success on this path of integration.
On Compulsory Military Service
it’s a very legalistic issue, to put it this way. I did not abolish military service – I did not have power for that. It’s up to the parliament because it is regulated by the legislation. What I did was I found a loophole for showing the way how to deal with this very serious problem for the Georgian society.
I have canceled request by the Ministry of Defense on bringing the young people under the old species of the compulsory military service. So we basically denied our quota and said that we don’t need it. We moved to the fully professional army which is actually the case. When I was a minister, the recruits were only 2 percent of the entire army, which proves the case. I mean, I don’t think I need any additional arguments to say that it’s a history for the Georgian military.
But they needed recruits in army in order to put it “under the sauce” of the army, because otherwise big majority of them are used for completely different purposes than military service in Georgia. They would be assigned to the Ministry of Interior, to the police forces, and most importantly to the corrections services, which is basically guarding the prisons.
And this is one of the major problems for the 18-19-years-old guys, who’ve never had any experience with the guns, or with any kind of security action, and suddenly they found themselves standing on those high castles over the prison cells, monitoring prisoners. That gives lots of trouble to them, and definitely they are not prepared for that.
Anyway the idea was two-fold: first of all not to allow anything that equals to slavery in Georgia, (and this is my understanding of the type of compulsory military service Georgia exercises today: It is a modern-day slavery), and, two, was to propose to a country an alternative to the actual needs of the military, and use for the defense of the country that is the constitutional requirement in Georgia.
On Gender and Minorities
one thing which is obviously to be mentioned is that men or women serving military is the most honorable job one can have, because every day you wake up and realize that a couple of thousands of your guys are right now waiting for actual death, because they are on the frontlines of the war, and there is nothing more honorable than being in service for those people, their families, being in support of their kids and serving your country.
I think this is what makes the position of a minister of defense so important, and not the fact that whether you’re a woman or man. I think it’s equally honorable for anybody. In my case, unfortunately, I cannot say that it has dramatically changed any culture or attitudes towards this issue, because I became the minister of defense being a woman. Because I was a human rights lawyer in my first life for 15 years, defending the most problematic of all: prisoners tortured, detainees abused at the police departments, the journalists abused by the police, actually fighting police in the courtrooms or in front of the cameras, because there were lots of instances when they would deny me as a lawyer – entrance to my client and then they would physically fight me not to enter the building..
It created this image of me of a human being – regardless of gender – who was on the frontlines of a fight. And when I became the minister of defense, I don’t remember anybody being particularly surprised, because for them I was this warrior – not necessarily a woman – they were used to the fact that I was always on the in the frontlines.
So someone with less fight and more women-associated profession probably wouldn’t make much bigger difference, if becoming the minister of defense.
I think that it’s kind of a duty of all women in charge – whether they run big businesses, or NGOs, or media, or they are in government – to empower other women, to give opportunities, to use this chance to prove that equality is real and it works, and it’s practical and normal, and there is nothing special about it. And we’ve tried our best to bring that culture and attitude at the ministry.
For the first time when I was a minister we have created opportunity for girls to go into the military lyceums, which was not the case before. We had only this opportunity available for boys. It’s a full state-funded wonderful school where, together with great education, kids are also getting sports and physical training different from the ordinary public schools, and getting used to overcoming the obstacles in life that in ordinary schools you don’t get.
We have been naming things after the famous Georgian women from the first Republic, just to prove the fact that it’s not for the first time, and those things were happening: Women were fighting for this country and sacrificing their lives that everybody forgot, and only men and their names were always out there. So that was another part of our campaign to introduce those women to the Georgian public and to prove that it was a part of our history – not something brought by the UN declarations or European conventions, but it was part of our culture and social life over the centuries.
And also we’ve been helping women outside the army as well. For example we had this social project. Usually over the Christmas, or Independence Day, or Easter (I guess it is the same in most of the countries) different agencies give out gifts – packages for employees or colleagues, to say “Happy New Year” or “Merry Christmas”. What we were doing was instead of buying goods produced in China and distributing them, we were contracting social enterprises run by women, and therefore supporting them to develop, and also to feel important and useful in this society.
On Civil Society and NGOs
The organization was created with a very particular purpose. As I said most of the reforms we started within the ministry were changed after we left, and we felt a need of continuing them at least on the societal level as much as possible. Of course we could not bring minorities or women to the army, but we could encourage them to be part of it.
So what we basically do is – again on a societal level, as much as you can have an influence on public opinion – to do necessary work for raising resilience of the Georgian society, for supporting creation of a Georgian one united civic nation, regardless of belonging to religious or ethnic backgrounds, for supporting the dialogue on big issues in a society and reaching agreement on the big issues.
For example, we can kill each other daily on particular domestic policy directions, like what kind of vaccine we should be using, or what kind of lockdown we should have during pandemics. But when it comes to national security issues, any political party in this country, particularly the ones who are in parliament and who are in charge of decision-making, should have a full consensus, without any “but” and “in case”.
So we have a very clear agenda: we fight the concept of “neutral Georgia”, we fight the concept of “Eurasian union” in Georgia, we fight dominance in the Georgian political area of the forces who support any influence from the foreign powers towards supporting totalitarianism, supporting one-party rule, supporting non-democratic behavior, fighting liberal democracy. These are the things that are important to us, the values we carry the values – fundamental values of a liberal democratic society. It defines our agenda when we go on a daily basis with whatever work we do – education, or research, or anti-corruption monitoring, or any direction that we that we carry.
So there are lots of groups fortunately in Georgia who do similar job in different directions, there are lots of media players who are interested in bringing this message to the wider public, and I believe that together with all the players around – being it political parties or media outlets or just average Georgian citizens who voluntarily take a lead on various issues related to anti-occupation movement or fighting foreign influence operations, at the end of the day we can build a resilient society that is capable of identifying all those threats and defeating them for the benefit of the sovereignty of this country.
Because there are lots of organizations doing a brilliant job on the agenda that I’ve just described but related Russia, we have decided to do a similar job but not to intervene in the area which is well researched and structured.
We took an initiative on working with other foreign actors who influence or try to influence Georgian politics, Georgia societal culture, and culture of democracy in this country – those being China, Iran, Turkey, and any other country that might fall under the rudder of any of those issues.
So I think that the research that we’ve been doing for these last three years, particularly on China, and the Chinese state companies operating in Georgia, the corrupt deals they are involved with my government’s representatives, or my government’s representatives involved in corrupt deals with those Chinese companies is a completely new concept in the in the Georgian public discourse.
Regardless of resistance from the beginning and less interest to it, after three years of our work it’s changed completely. There is a huge interest, there are lots of organizations now who come for the advice and consulting to us, and also media is very much engaged and interested.
The other initiative that we started two years ago, right before the pandemic (people were joking that we’ve “predicted” the online education), was that we’ve established online democracy education platform – the first one in Georgia. Now it’s working pretty well: we have over 67 different programs, including on Azeri and Armenian languages as well.
Hopefully we will continue it, with more interaction, more interest, and also more courses added on a wider understanding of democracy, and not limited to only human rights or democratic institution-building – involving security and human security issues as well, like health care and so on. So we have big plans towards this platform, and with the support from the donors hopefully it will be much more successful than it is now.
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The video version of the Interview