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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Georgian Military Puts On a Reality TV Show

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The Georgian army's latest recruits leapt from the helicopter as it touched down, scrambled across the field and threw themselves to the ground in the hope of dodging snipers' bullets or incoming shells. In full battle dress uniforms, they certainly looked like soldiers -- but they weren't. They were contestants in a reality television show that the Georgian Defense Ministry hopes will lure new recruits.

The show, "Barracks," is filmed at Mukhrovani, an army base east of Tbilisi. The contestants live in quarters that might resemble those inhabited by regular soldiers if they weren't covered with Coca-Cola sponsorship logos. As in most reality TV shows, the contestants will be voted out, one by one, until the eventual winner takes home a big cash prize.

The difference with "Barracks" is the collaboration with the Defense Ministry. Georgia is strengthening its armed forces in the hope of eventually joining NATO, a plan that has angered the Kremlin, even though it may not be fulfilled for years. Modernizing its bases with the help of U.S. military advisers, the government has also started a recruitment drive for active-duty soldiers and reservists. Promotional videos on the Defense Ministry's web site show happy grunts enjoying gourmet dinners and free computer access.

At the television station Rustavi-2, one of the reality show's directors told me it was good for the military because it portrayed the life of a soldier in the Georgian army as not only heroic, but cool. The contestants seemed to agree. Among them were a footballer, a fashion model, a mountaineer and a female boxer. Some of them told me they were seriously thinking about joining the army after the series ended.

"Georgians should do their duty to defend their country, especially when it's under threat," one said, referring to the unresolved conflicts over Georgia's two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. His words reminded me of President Mikheil Saakashvili, who visited the very same base a few weeks ago to tell genuine recruits that every Georgian should be able to pick up a weapon and defend his country.

Georgia is keen to show how much it has smartened up its tattered armed forces. It says it will more than double the number of soldiers serving with the U.S. mission in Iraq, and has offered to send soldiers to join NATO troops in Afghanistan. Some six years ago, the Mukhrovani base became notorious after a bunch of soldiers mutinied. Now a reality TV series is being filmed here. That's progress, perhaps, but the real prize is increased national security through NATO membership, and no one knows if Georgia will be the winner of the real military reality show.

Matthew Collin is a Tbilisi-based journalist.