Saakashvili replaces defence minister with 28-year-old deputy

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili replaced Defence Minister David Sikharulidze with his 28-year-old deputy Bacho Akhalaia, blaming unsatisfactory results from Sikharulidze, tasked with rebuilding the former Soviet republic's armed forces.


REUTERS - Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili replaced his defence minister on Thursday, saying he was not satisfied with the military's combat readiness a year after war with Russia.


David Sikharulidze, 41, was replaced by his 28-year-old deputy Bacho Akhalaia, a close ally of Saakashvili and powerful Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili.


Sikharulidze held the post for eight months, overseeing the rebuilding of Georgia's shattered military after defeat by Russia in a five-day war last August.


It was the second cabinet change in the former Soviet republic in a week after Economic Development Minister Lasha Zhvania was dismissed on Friday.


"... Despite the improvement in the preparation and readiness of the military, I would not assess the readiness of our army as fully satisfactory to defend against a very dangerous aggressor," Saakashvili told a session of the National Security Council.


The year since the war has seen several leadership changes in the military, with analysts citing friction between different factions in the armed forces and the Defence Ministry top brass.


Authorities put down a brief, bloodless mutiny at a tank base in May amid opposition street protests demanding Saakashvili quit over his record on democracy and last year's war, when Russia crushed a Georgian assault on breakaway South Ossetia after days of escalating skirmishes with rebels.


Georgia's opposition, which accuses Saakashvili of monopolising power since the 2003 "Rose Revolution", slammed the appointment of Akhalaia as "wrong and dangerous".


"This appointment means police control of the army and raises the chances of military adventure," said Republican Party chairman David Usupashvili.


Sikharulidze, a former ambassador to the United States, was appointed foreign policy adviser to the president.


A Tbilisi law graduate, Akhalaia was previously head of the penitentiary department of the Justice Ministry, before becoming deputy defence minister last year.


"We will modernise the army and quicken integration into NATO structures. It will be an army capable of defence," he told reporters after the Security Council meeting.


Diplomats say last year's war slammed the brakes on Georgia's NATO accession bid, faced with fierce Russian opposition and unease in some European capitals over the country's readiness.


Dozens of U.S. marines have arrived to start the training next week of several hundred Georgian soldiers for deployment in Afghanistan later this year and next.



Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning