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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.

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No thaw in relations between Russia and NATO

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Georgian experts offer differing assessments of their meaning.

"This is a continuation of what happened last August," when the Russian army stormed into South Ossetia to defend the breakaway Georgian statelet from an attempt to impose Tbilisi's control by military force, says Alexander Rondeli, president of the independent Foundation for Strategic and Political Studies in Tbilisi. "Our northern neighbor wants to destabilize Georgia, and you can't say it's over or that things will become normal. Russia will never tolerate Georgia's independence."

But Georgi Khutsishvili, chair of the International Center on Conflict and Negotiation in Tbilisi, says there are no "pro-Russian" forces, either among the opposition in Tbilisi's streets or within the Georgian army. "Our authorities are always seeing Moscow's hand in things," he says. "But I cannot imagine that any Georgian army battalion could revolt on Russian orders. I completely exclude this. Whatever happened, it must be explained by internal factors."

Experts say the Kremlin appears increasingly concerned over the damage to Russia's fragile dialogue with NATO, begun with high hopes barely a month ago. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last week called on the Western alliance to cancel the "shortsighted" war games, and ordered Russian officials not to attend a NATO council meeting slated for Thursday.

Making matters worse, NATO last week expelled two Russian diplomats accused of espionage – one of them the son of Moscow's ambassador to the European Union – a move that drew angry Russian accusations that the Western alliance was returning to cold war-style "gross provocations."

On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that he will not attend a NATO summit in Brussels later this month, where he was to have met US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to protest against the spying allegations.

And in another tension-building development, the Kremlin signed security pacts last Thursday with the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, enabling Russia's FSB security service to take control over the two statelets' borders. Russian border guards, who fall under command of the FSB, began taking up positions along the disputed frontier this week, along with 1,800 fresh Russian troops. Georgia's foreign ministry denounced the moves as "yet another Russian attempt to strengthen the military build-up on Georgia's occupied territories and legitimize the occupation process."

Russian officials insist they are not worried about any military threat posed by the NATO-sponsored military exercises, which were scheduled well before the August war, but feel offended by what they see as a Western effort to bolster Saakashvili even after he authorized the military attack on South Ossetia that killed a dozen Russian peacekeeping troops.

"Western politicians are just closing their eyes to the instability in Georgia, and they just can't accept that Russia might be right about anything," says Sergei Markov, a Duma deputy from the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party.

"It looks to us like NATO just insists on recognizing the legitimacy of Saakashvili, to treat him as if he were a normal politician who behaves normally. It's the position of NATO countries toward us, rather than what's going on in Georgia, that causes us the most concern," he says.