Georgia's government has called Tuesday's mutiny at a military base near Tbilisi part of a coup attempt orchestrated by Russia, but opponents of beleaguered President Mikheil Saakashvili accuse him of using the incident to crack down on mounting domestic opposition. Soldiers in tanks and armored personnel carriers raced to the base in Mukhrovani, 20 miles from the capital, to confront mutinous soldiers, about 500 of whom were arrested after the standoff ended peacefully.
The military uprising seemed to be "coordinated with Russia" and aimed at causing "military riots at different places all over Georgia to make sure at the minimum that the NATO training [exercise due to begin shortly] in Georgia would not happen and at the maximum that there would be a full-scale military riot in the country," Shota Utiashvili, an Interior Ministry spokesman, said on Tuesday. Russia denied the charges, with Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin calling them "delusional" and alleging that "the Georgian leadership is trying to blame their internal political problems on Russia." (See pictures of last year's Georgia-Russia conflict.)
The Russians seem to have a point: Georgia has grown increasingly tense in recent weeks as opponents of Saakashvili's handling of last year's confrontation with Moscow and the deepening economic crisis have taken to the streets, holding mass demonstrations and blocking roads in the capital. And it was those demonstrations that appear to have prompted the Mukhrovani soldiers' rebellion, at a base where soldiers had previously mutinied over pay and conditions in 2001 and 2004. "One cannot calmly watch the collapse of the country and watch the continuing political confrontation. But there won't be any aggressive action from our tank unit. We are in our barracks, and we are not going to leave them," said Mamuka Gorgishvili, the battalion commander at Mukhrovani, on Tuesday.
But the government linked the mutiny to a coup plot it claims to have discovered two months ago, said Utiashvili, the Interior Ministry spokesman. Government officials showed the press a video claiming to show Givi Khvaladze, a former official at the Defense Ministry, outlining plans to seize control of the government with 200 military vehicles, heavy armor and 5,000 Russian soldiers. "Russia will come to our assistance" and will help "liquidate the leaders" of the government, he says in the video, according to Interfax. Khvaladze as well as a handful of other high-ranking officials are under arrest, while others are on the run.
Some in the opposition believe Saakashvili may use the mutiny as an excuse to mobilize the military against demonstrators. "It is possible the authorities might use the incident with the military unit in Mukhrovani to quell the rallies in Tbilisi," said Mamuka Katsitadze, an opposition leader, although the Georgian leadership may be wary of igniting Western opposition given its precarious position.
Both government and opposition figures in Georgia have recently voiced concern that the U.S. has begun to turn away from the country after the Obama Administration sought to rebuild ties with Moscow, though NATO remains critical of Russia's role there. After an agreement was signed last week in Moscow formalizing the role of 500 Russian border guards in patrolling the borders of South Ossetia and Georgia's other breakaway republic of Abkhazia, NATO responded by calling the document a "clear contravention" of the cease-fire that ended the war between Russia and Georgia last August.
Tensions between NATO and Russia have recently escalated over the expulsion from NATO headquarters of two Russian diplomats implicated in a spying scandal uncovered in Estonia last week. And NATO's plans to go ahead with a long-planned monthlong "crisis response" drill involving about 1,000 soldiers from more than 12 NATO member states at another military base near Tbilisi starting Wednesday have exacerbated tensions.
"The mere expansion of NATO does not represent a threat, [Russian President Dmitri] Medvedev has said repeatedly," said Alexander Sharavin, director of the Institute of Political and Military Analysis in Moscow and a former colonel in the Soviet Army. "However, our country cannot welcome NATO's unilateral steps when they are taken regardless of our interests."
Whatever the state of his relations with NATO allies and with Moscow, however, Saakashvili's problems at home are unlikely to end with the suppression of the mutiny opposition leaders made clear on Tuesday that their supporters plan to return to the streets to demand the President's ouster.