MOSCOW — Georgia said Tuesday it had thwarted a military uprising that was backed by Russia, further throwing the region into turmoil on the eve of NATO war games inside the former Soviet country.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said a mutiny at the Mukhrovani base outside the capital Tbilisi had been put down and though it was a “serious threat,” it was also an isolated one.
Russia had no immediate official reaction to the charges that it had helped organize and finance the plot, but a Kremlin source told the ITAR-Tass news agency that Saakashvili should “see a doctor.”
The NATO exercises due to start in Georgia tomorrow have ratcheted up tensions between Russia and Georgia, who fought a five-day war in August over separatist regions that Moscow has since recognized as independent.
Tensions along the borders remain high, with some 10,000 Russian troops on permanent patrol under a deal signed with the regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, last week.
Shota Utiashvili, a spokesman for Georgia’s Interior Ministry, told reporters in Tbilisi that the plot was designed to disrupt the NATO exercises, backing down from earlier Interior Ministry claims that it was a military coup designed to unseat Saakashvili.
Utiashvili said the plot was organized by Georgy Gvaladze, a former special forces commander who was arrested after the ministry caught him on video saying 5,000 Russian troops would enter the country to support the uprising, which was due to erupt nationwide on Thursday.
“They were receiving money from Russia," Utiashvili said. “It seems it was coordinated with Russia.”
The suspected uprising at Mukhrovani broke out after Gvaladze's arrest, and the central government deployed at least 30 tanks and armored personnel carriers to put down the alleged rebellion, news agencies reported from Tbilisi.
Yet what really happened on Tuesday remains unclear.
Saakashvili has been plagued by three weeks of street protests and lost the confidence of much of the population after the August war, when Russian forces routed Georgia’s U.S.-trained military in just five days.
Did Moscow really sponsor an uprising? Or was Saakashvili looking to distract the protesters?
Either way, Tuesday’s events speak to the high state of tension in this corner of the world.
Georgia has fostered close ties to the West since Saakashvili came to power in early 2004 after kicking out the Soviet-era leadership in the Rose Revolution. Saakashvili has sought to cement his country’s membership in the western club by bringing Georgia into NATO, a move Russia sees as an existential threat.
His dreams were stymied after the August war. Had Georgia been a member of NATO, an alliance that managed to avoid military conflict with Russia throughout the Cold War would have been obligated to engage in a shooting match that nobody wanted.
While the exercises due to begin tomorrow and last through early June do not imply Georgia’s immediate membership in NATO, they are a clear sign of support for a country that has so fiercely tried to rid itself of Russia’s hold.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has called the exercises a provocation, and the foreign ministry has urged NATO to cancel the games.
Five former Soviet republics — Armenia, Estonia, Latvia, Kazakhstan and Moldova — have declined to take part in the exercises, Vedomosti, Russia’s leading business daily, reported Tuesday. About 1,000 troops from 19 countries — NATO members and partner nations — were originally due to take part in practicing crisis response to terrorist attacks at an army base outside Tbilisi.
The exercises come amid a darkening backdrop of NATO-Russia relations.
It emerged Tuesday that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would drop plans to attend a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council later this month to protest NATO’s expulsion last week of two Russian diplomats accused of spying.
“There is no possibility to hold the meeting under the circumstances,” Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s envoy to NATO, told Vesti-24, a state-run Russian cable news channel.
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