GEORGIA: About the new Defence Code and religious conscientious objection
GEORGIA: About the new Defence Code and religion
By Luka Kiliptari (*)
Civil.ge (28.02.2023) – In December 2022, the Government of Georgia announced the new defense code, pledging it would improve the social welfare of military personnel. The government says it will also change the existing conscription system, eliminating the legal loophole that the Biblical Freedom church has used for years to help conscripts evade compulsory military service.
Conscription has been criticized in Georgia for years. Many, including former Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli, argued that the government used conscripts as cheap labor in various state institutions and did not provide real military training. One of the biggest opponents of the existing system, the libertarian political party Girchi, founded the church Biblical Freedom in 2017 to take advantage of the norm in the Georgian legislation that exempts priests from conscription. Biblical Freedom – a movement created by Girchi specifically for this purpose – ordained thousands of young men allowing them to avoid compulsory military service.
The Georgian Government and the Georgian Orthodox Church have condemned Biblical Freedom for years. In February 2021, the Holy Synod of the Georgian Orthodox Church even decided to deny communions and other sacraments, such as baptism and marriage, to the people who used priesthood certificates from Biblical Freedom. To discourage people from registering as Biblical Freedom priests, the Holy Synod also declared that the Georgian Orthodox Church would refuse funeral rites to them. Moreover, speaking about the Holy Synod’s decision, the then speaker of the parliament, Archil Talakvadze, accused Girchi of undermining national security for political gain and announced the defense reform in this context.
Discussions about military reform were resumed on December 16, 2022, at the government meeting, where Prime Minister Garibashvili promised that the new defense code would end the activities of the “despicable” and “blasphemous” religious organization founded by Girchi. The Prime Minister stressed that the government had consulted the Georgian Patriarchate about the planned changes.
What changes does the new code envisage?
The proposed defense policy is based on a total defense approach and aims to increase the country’s ability to use all its national resources to defend the entire territory. Most of the changes will take effect starting January 1, 2025. The reform of compulsory military service, which will be renamed to National Military Service of Conscripts, is one of the key parts of the proposed defense code. Reversing the current policy of conscripts serving as, for example, prison guards in the ministries of interior and justice, after the passing of the new law, all conscripts will be subordinated to the Ministry of Defense. The duration of compulsory military service will be reduced. Instead of serving for 12 months, the recruits will serve in one of these three shorter-term programs:
- 6 months of service in a combat unit;
- 8 months of service in the security subdivision;
- 11 months of service in junior command positions and predetermined specialties.
In addition, the conscription process will no longer be delegated to municipalities. From January 1, 2024, the Ministry of Defense will organize conscription. The government will use an electronic random conscription system.
Students at higher education institutions who are now exempt will also become subject to conscription. But to facilitate their education, in addition to the 6, 8, and 11 months of services offered to everyone, they will also be able to opt for a special program, allowing them to serve one month in summer, spread over 4 years if they are 23 or younger. The law does not specify how many of the draftees will be students. However, the Prime Minister announced in December that students would constitute half of the 10,000 new conscripts drafted annually.
The fee for deferring the conscription will increase from 2,000 GEL to 10,000 GEL. Only one such one-year deferral will be possible. Previously, individuals were allowed to defer their service twice, for 18 months.
The new legislation also aims to improve the social welfare of the servicemen. According to the proposed Defense Code, from 2024, the Ministry of Defense will be obliged to build co-financed housing for military personnel once every three years. Until now, co-financed housing has only been offered on a goodwill basis.
Compensation for military personnel injured or killed in the line of duty will also increase. If soldiers are wounded or mutilated, they will receive 20 000 GEL instead of 7 000, while if they die, their families will receive 30 000 GEL, instead of 15 000. In case of death during war or participation in military operations, the financial aid will remain at 100 000 Lari.
How does the reform address the legal loophole used by draft dodgers?
The norm in the Law of Georgia on Military Duty and Military Service, which lists being a priest as one of the grounds for deferral of military service, will be removed. The clergy will be required to perform non-military alternative labor service immediately after the law is adopted, not from 2025. The term for alternative service will be longer than the term for military service – 18 months before January 1, 2025, and 12 months after that date.
Is a new law problematic?
The new conscription system will put the priests belonging to the Georgian Orthodox Church in a privileged position by omission. Even though the law would no longer contain the provision to exempt the priests, the 2002 Constitutional Agreement between the Georgian state and the Orthodox Church is the legislative act of higher order. Article 4 of that law exempts the Orthodox priests from military service, including alternative service.
The Council of Religions – a body functioning at the Public Defender’s Office – said while the clergy from other religious congregations is not against alternative service, they decry the discriminatory exemption applied to the Georgian Orthodox clergy.
(*) Luka Kiliptari is a Program Assistant in USAID Unity Through Diversity Program