'Patriot Camps' Cause Concern in Former Soviet Republic

In the former Soviet republic of Georgia, thousands of young people have been attending voluntary patriot camps. The government says the camps help to counter cynicism among young Georgians. But the camps feature basic military training, and have been criticized by Georgia's political opposition.

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In the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, thousands of young people have been attending voluntary Patriot camps. The government says the camps help to counter cynicism and hopelessness among young Georgians, but the camps feature basic military training and they've been criticized by Georgia's political opposition. NPR's Lawrence Sheets reports.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE SHEETS reporting:

Along the lush green mountainside, military officers in tan fatigues bark out commands to young men and women dressed in orange and blue uniforms and caps emblazoned with the word `Patriot.' The military officers pass out loaded Kalashnikov rifle magazines to the 15- to 20-year-olds who stand at attention.

(Soundbite of a rifle)

SHEETS: Marika Bayurmanyan(ph), a university student from the capital of Tbilisi, lies down in a firing trench.

What does it feel like when you're shooting a Kalashnikov?

Ms. MARIKA BAYURMANYAN (University Student): I don't know. I think that's great.

SHEETS: A military trainer help Marika steady the weapon as she unloads a hail of bullets at white targets about 80 yards away.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

SHEETS: Marika's one of more than 15,000 young people attending the 10-day Patriot camps this year. Next year the Georgian government says 100,000 will attend. Sergeant Yorgi Tzeveteli(ph) says the military aspect is secondary.

Sergeant YORGI TZEVETELI: (Through Translator) This training provides the young people a basis for how to handle weapons. This is not enough for them. The main principle is to raise their spirits as patriots.

SHEETS: The government of President Mikhail Sakashvili says the camps are needed to induce young Georgians with a sense of discipline and national pride. Sakashvili recently spoke with several hundred young patriots after they completed camp.

President MIKHAIL SAKASHVILI: (Through Translator) Two years ago, our country was laughed at and ridiculed, above all by its own government and president. Not only did they have no idea what governing a country was about, but they did not have any self-respect and dignity. They were not proud to be Georgian.

SHEETS: Another idea behind the camps is ethnic integration. Relations between minorities and ethnic Georgians are not always smooth. Marika Bayurmanyan, an Armenian herself, says the camps try to break down those barriers.

Ms. BAYURMANYAN: Yeah, we have different nationalities and the children, for example, Armenians or others--children are from all parts of Georgia, and they learn how to communicate with each other, with children from different parts of Georgia.

SHEETS: But critics, like opposition lawmaker Paata Zakareishvili, say the Georgian Patriot camps are just an updated version of the Soviet Pioneer camps.

Mr. PAATA ZAKAREISHVILI (Opposition Lawmaker): (Through Translator) This is dangerous. Sakashvili wants to instill these people with his own ideology. He wants to mobilize the young people so that they don't mobilize against him.

SHEETS: Zakareishvili says the weapons training in the Patriot camps is part of a campaign by the government to encourage militant attitudes and prepare people psychologically for new wars against Georgia's two separatist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But even the opposition admits the camps are popular. Many of the kids are from poor backgrounds. Drug abuse, unemployment and street crime have exploded in Georgia since the Soviet collapse. And many parents are happy to keep their kids off the streets, if only for a couple of weeks. Lawrence Sheets, NPR News, Bakuriani, Georgia.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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