TBILISI (Reuters) - Soldiers from NATO aspirant Georgia switched their Soviet-era Kalashnikov rifles on Friday for U.S.-designed M4 carbines in part of a drive to distance themselves from their Russian-dominated past.
Since surging to power in a peaceful 2003 revolution, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has aggressively pursued NATO membership which requires the former Soviet state to modernize its military.
“Good bye old weapon! Long live the new one!” Saakashvili said at an opening ceremony of a new military base in Gori, which is 80 km (50 miles) from the capital Tbilisi, close to the breakaway province of South Ossetia — and Stalin’s birthplace.
Saakashvili handed over the M4 carbine to several soldiers.
He has argued with Russia over the status of Georgia’s two rebel regions — South Ossetia and Abkhazia — which Moscow supports but Tbilisi has threatened to take back.
Georgia also built a new, NATO-standard military base in 2006 near the border with Abkhazia on the Black Sea coast.
Saakashvili has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on boosting the army and prides himself on creating a modern force. Georgia has about 2,500 soldiers in Iraq. Adverts and pop songs glorify Georgian soldiers.
Former Soviet Georgia lies at the centre of a power struggle between the United States and Russia in the Caucasus, a strategic region wedged between Europe and the Middle East.
Georgian officials say they have purchased enough M4 weapons to equip the entire army and that all troops will be issued with them in the next few weeks.
The weapon is an assault rifle widely used by U.S. troops which can be switched between fully and semi-automatic fire.
Reporting and writing by Margarita Antidze, editing by Richard Meares