It looked like a recipe for political crisis even before a Georgian tank battalion apparently mutinied on Tuesday:
• 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.
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."
No thaw in relations between Russia and NATO
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.