Was it a coup attempt? Or was it just a plea for help by desperately impoverished troops? A week after the May 25 National Guard uprising, officials in Georgia are still wrangling with the issue. Most government leaders, including President Eduard Shevardnadze, tend to view the episode as an attempted coup. Whatever the actual answers, many Georgians feel the mutiny is a portent of wider instability.
Shevardnadze suggested an unnamed group had attempted to manipulate the rebellion of guardsmen -- who briefly occupied a base at Mukhrovani, about 40 kilometers northeast of Tbilisi for their own political purposes. Referring to colonels Koba Otanadze and Gia Krialashvili, the leaders of the rebellion, Shevardnadze said on May 29: "It is a mark of honor that these men didn't follow the provocation."
At a May 31 press conference, in his first public comments on the incident, Defense Minister Davit Tevzadze echoed Shevardnadze's opinion. He said that if the uprising had not been quickly defused, the mutiny could have easily proliferated into a coup. "If there had been signs of the plan [The Mukhrovani mutiny] going well, certain groups would have backed it. They were ready for it." Tevzadze did not elaborate on the composition of the "certain groups."
Shevardnadze has sought to minimize the disruption and maintain a sense of normalcy. He has publicly stated that he does not intend to pursue the issue of responsibility for the Mukhrovani events. He also has expressed a desire to keep Tevzadze and National Guard commander of the National Guards Jemal Chumburidze in the current roles. Chumburidze had submitted his resignation immediately following the incident, and Tevzadze had mulled a similar move. "There is no reason to resign now, but this kind of military actions shouldn't happen again," he said.
Other leading politicians also are seeking to move on. For example, Parliament Speaker Zurab Zhvania, who on the day of the uprising described it as an attempted coup, subsequently backtracked, and declared that socio-economic factors precipitated events. Those who participated in the mutiny have insisted all along that their action was a cry for assistance. Living conditions for soldiers have experienced a rapid decline in recent years, and many troops have gone up to 16 months without being paid. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Shevardnadze said a special governmental commission will be established under the auspices of the National Security Council, and will convene every 10 days to examine economic and social issues related to the military. The president also instructed the commission to develop recommendations for improving soldiers' quality of life, and submit them within one month.
Many observers believe that Shevardnadze's rapid personal intervention during the mutiny was instrumental in containing events. Gia Nodia, a political scientist at the Caucasus Institute for Peace Democracy and Development, described Shevardnadze a "good political fireman." Nevertheless, there is concern that, with no economic recovery in sight, Shevardnadze's charisma may not be sufficient in the future to head off trouble.
Gia Baramidze, head of the parliament's security committee, has hinted that there are factions in Georgia that remain intent on fomenting political upheaval. Baramidze said that right after Shevardnadze secured an agreement with the mutineers on May 25 to return to barracks, a serious dispute erupted, pitting those who wanted purely to voice complaints about economic conditions against those who wanted to politicize the uprising.
Tevzadze said at his news conference that he expected anti-government forces to increase their activities in the Gali District of Abkhazia and in the Pankisi Gorge, near Chechnya, aiming to further destabilize the country.
Meanwhile, Irakli Batiashvili, a member of parliament and a former intelligence chief, said government opponents were continuing to work vigorously to undermine order in Georgia. "Serious work very serious work is underway," Batiashvili said in a statement. "Latent hidden work is being conducted among different circles of society
Dimitri Bit-Suleiman is a freelance journalist based in Georgia.