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Seeing Red: Georgia blames Russia for 'mutiny'

Russia, furious over NATO war games set to begin Wednesday in Georgia, says recent turmoil is evidence of Saakashvili's instability. Armenia withdraws from war games.

By Correspondent / May 5, 2009

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, left, surrounded by his guards enters the military base Tuesday where a brief mutiny broke out, in Mukhrovani, about 20 miles from Tbilisi, the country's capital.

Irakli Gedenidze, Presidential Press Service, Pool/AP

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It looked like a recipe for political crisis even before a Georgian tank battalion apparently mutinied on Tuesday:

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• Nearly a month of rolling street demonstrations have virtually shut down the central area of the capital, with thousands of protesters daily demanding the resignation of Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili.

• Russian troops have been massing in the past week barely an hour's drive away in South Ossetia.

NATO-sponsored war games that Moscow furiously opposes are set to begin on Wednesday.

Then came the apparent mutiny Tuesday of Georgian soldiers – a still-murky event that Mr. Saakashvili was quick to blame on a pro-Russian conspiracy inside his country's armed forces. Though Georgian authorities announced that the situation had been brought under control by Tuesday evening, and several former and current military commanders are now under investigation for plotting the alleged rebellion, people in Tbilisi say conditions remain tense.

Russian authorities, who angrily deny any involvement in the plot, insist the turmoil underscores their longstanding claim that Georgia is an unstable entity with an illegitimate leader that should not be playing host to NATO forces. Relations between Moscow and NATO, already at low ebb, appear set to plummet further after NATO grimly announced that the month-long war games, which involve 1,300 troops from 18 countries, will go ahead as planned.

"It's hard to say what will come next," says Alexander Iskandaryan, director of the independent Center for Caucasian Studies in Yerevan, Armenia. "The Russian mood toward Georgia is strained, nervous and irrational. The same can be said for Georgia's attitude to Russia. [Tuesday's] events show there is a chaotic struggle for power inside Georgia, and suggests that Saakashvili's power is not secure."

Late Tuesday, Armenia announced it would be withdrawing from the NATO military exercises. A statement released by the defense ministry of the longtime Russian ally cited "the current situation" for its decision, but offered no further explanation. Kazakhstan and Serbia, also strong allies with Russia, have previously canceled their participation.

Georgia, Moscow blame one another for mutiny

Georgia's Interior Ministry says a 500-man tank battalion stationed at Mukhrovani, about 18 miles from Tbilisi, mutinied on Tuesday in a bid to disrupt the NATO war games. According to Shota Utiashvili, a ministry spokesman, the plotters "were receiving money from Russia, and [their actions] were coordinated with Russia." He adds that a "full-scale mutiny" had been planned by the rebels, but was averted by the authorities' quick action.

In a televised statement, Saakashvili also blamed Moscow and added, "I am asking and demanding from our northern neighbor to refrain from provocations."

However, in a statement quoted by Georgian news agencies, the rebellious battalion's commander, Mamuka Gorgishvili, indicated that his men were merely staging a sit-down strike to protest "the ongoing [political] confrontation" between antigovernment demonstrators and Saakashvili in the streets of Tbilisi. "There will be no aggressive actions on behalf of our tank unit," the statement said. "We are in barracks and we are not going to leave them."

Some Georgian opposition leaders say they doubt there was any military mutiny.

"The authorities are in crisis and we fear Saakashvili might use this situation to declare a state of emergency," says Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia, leader of the "Hope" coalition of opposition groups. After a month of rolling anti-government street rallies in Tbilisi, she says, "Saakashvili wants an excuse to use force against us, to make the population give up on the very idea of protesting."