In Georgia's 27 years of independence, the country has only had one female defense minister, Tina Khidasheli.
Her tenure at the ministry was marked by several reform initiatives and a push to make the defense sector more open to the public.
It also marked a change in Georgia's traditionally macho political environment, where just three out of 11 ministers are female and there are very few women in military leadership.
Khidasheli says she tried to use the 15 months she was at the ministry to open Georgia's military institutions for future generations of female leaders.
Advocating for women’s right to serve in the military was not her original goal, however. When she was appointed to the post, Khidasheli – a highly trained lawyer and long-time activist against government corruption – was not primarily focused on gender.
But, as it turned out, everyone else was.
The public focus on her gender became clear a few days after she was appointed as defense minister. On May 11, 2015 Khidasheli visited Vaziani Military Base to attend a rehearsal for the upcoming Georgian-American Nobel Partner military drills. The Ministry of Defense released photos of her visit, including one image that showed her standing in front of soldiers, wearing a soldier’s jacket draped over her shoulders.
As Khidasheli recalls, she put on the jacket because it was rainy and windy. But Georgian social media users were outraged that she treated a part of a soldier's uniform so casually.
The response was so negative that the ministry had to delete the image.
Following that incident – as well as subsequent public debates over the jewelry she wore and her hairstyle – Khidasheli realized her gender was playing an outsized role in her new post.
Now she prefers to view the jacket incident as a symbol of her outsider-reformer status at the ministry.
Her unconscious decision to drape it over her shoulders was a sign that her leadership would force the traditionally closed ministry to open up to the public, Khidasheli says.
"If I wore the jacket as soldiers do and even put stars on it, I guess it would have been more comical," she says.
By wearing the jacket as she did, Khidasheli says she was demonstrating that she was a civilian and "more open, more transparent”.
Transparency has long been a problem for Georgia's Ministry of Defense, she says, noting that even the mothers of fallen soldiers, who wanted nothing more than a few visits from “men in uniform,” had trouble getting attention in the past.
Khidasheli believes that while she was minister, she was able to enact real change and turn the ministry into a public institution that was more open for society and the media.
One of her first steps was to bring more women into the defense sector, starting with her deputy, Anna Dolidze.
“I was a female minister and not a lot of women participate in the security field. That does not reflect the reality [in our society]."
Khidasheli notes that, when she came to office, there was only one female colonel in Georgia.
"The whole appeal of the army is that everything is written and planned. If you serve in the army for a certain number of years, if you have received a specific level of education, you deserve a particular military rank. The system intentionally didn’t see the worth of female input, but we saw it and appreciated it."
While she was minister, she launched a program to help promote female officers to higher military positions.
Anna Dolidze started by creating a training program for young women at the country’s Cadets Military Lyceum. In 2016, Georgia became the first country in the South Caucasus to provide co-ed military training.
Khidasheli notes she was also able to make the military more welcoming to other minority groups, including Muslim Georgians.
As minister, Khidasheli made a point of traveling to Pankisi Gorge, a predominantly Muslim-populated part of Georgia that has become associated with a conservative form of Islam.
The myriad reports of Pankisi locals traveling to fight with terrorist groups in Syria have resulted in an atmosphere of distrust: Georgian State Security Services worry about destabilizing forces in the gorge and locals complain about the repressive state policy.
But Khidasheli visited the gorge with her deputies several times and, she says, she was able to build trust with local residents.
Her goal, she says, was to encourage more Muslims to join the military. Khidasheli notes that when she was minister, the military was a “unity of Georgian Christians,” which is unacceptable in ethnically diverse Georgia.
Khidasheli says she was successful at making changes to the military disciplinary code to allow Muslims to keep their beards. Other changes included creating prayer rooms in military units and taking halal – the Muslim diet – into consideration, she says.
Khidasheli notes that before she addressed the issues concerning local Muslims, they had been following an unwritten rule that “they did not have a place in the army.”
She says she wanted to change that.
"We wanted to promote the Georgian army. In addition, we explained that this is an army for their security and not against them”.
Khidasheli says that, due to her policy, 37 people from Pankisi applied to join the military.
The former minister underscores that the only way to integrate people is to “convince them that this country needs them.”
She says that is true in the military – and in the country’s struggles to restore its territorial integrity, something she fears the current government forgets.
Khidasheli notes that while some members of the current government do not believe that Georgia is embroiled in ethnic conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, she disagrees.
"We have an ethnic conflict. If [Prime Minister Mamuka] Bakhtadze thinks that Abkhazian and Ossetian mothers are sitting there and are sewing Georgian flags, he is mistaken,” she says.
“If Russians left tomorrow we could definitely solve this conflict, but we will have a lot of hardships and we will have to come to a consensus on many issues with Ossetians and Abkhazians.”
Khidasheli says that, on a human level, Georgia made the most progress in South Ossetia when it concentrated on humanitarian issues.
For instance, she notes that in the years before the 2008 war, the conflict in South Ossetia “was really settled” at a human level, and only political problems remained unresolved.
“This was the result of the correct policy. If someone is Ossetia became ill, it was commonplace for them to consider seeking treatment at the hospital in Gori, not in Vladikavkaz [Russia]. Or if someone wanted to study, they thought about universities in Tbilisi, and not studying in Russia. We were very close to resolving a knotty problem,” she says.
She says that the current government is too focused on the political aspect of the conflict and has lost sight of the human element.
"When I was a member of parliament [from 2012-2015], we had fights with the State Security Service, which was against legitimizing their [Abkhaz and Ossetian] documents, against recognizing anything issued in Sokhumi [Abkhazia],” she says.
“We asked ‘What can these people do? How will they live? What happens when they want to get married in Tbilisi but can’t because they don’t exist legally?!’”
Today Khidasheli is living and working in Prague, where she lectures and writes books about security issues. While she views her time as minister as a success, she is not surprised that she was not popular with the troops.
Two months after she left the ministry, soldiers voted in the country’s 2016 parliamentary elections. The Republican Party, which Khidasheli belonged to, received votes from just seven of the 1,249 Georgian servicemen and women serving in Afghanistan.
Khidasheli believes they were angry about her decision to cancel military conscription in the country, an initiative that was never acted on once she left office.
But she is philosophical about the way things turned out.
“They are very sensitive about this issue. I don’t agree with them, but I can understand”.
November, 2018 The Peace Builders