Georgian authorities have tightened security in the capital Tbilisi following a mutiny by a National Guard battalion. The incident underscores the tenuous nature of stability in Georgia, where the economy is stagnant and corruption is rampant. Officials have expressed concern that the incident could touch off civil conflict in the Caucasian republic.
The National Guard renegades were heavily armed and on military maneuvers on May 25 when they seized control of a State Security Ministry base in Mukhrovani, approximately 25 miles east of Tbilisi. There have been no casualties reported thus far in connection with the uprising.
According to the Interfax news agency, President Eduard Shevardnadze held a meeting late on May 25 with representatives of the mutineers. The Georgian leader sought to lower tension, expressing hope that the standoff could be quickly defused. Shevardnadze added that if the renegades surrendered quickly, they would not be prosecuted.
Security forces in Tbilisi have established numerous checkpoints, verifying pedestrians' identity documents and inspecting the contents of vehicles. Defensive positions have also been established around key government buildings, including the state chancellery and the parliament. Meanwhile, government troops have cut off access to the Mukhrovani facility and army troops have reportedly been deployed against the mutinous guardsmen. Defense Minister Davit Tevzadze is leading government negotiating efforts with the renegades.
Up to 1,500 renegades were reportedly holed up at the Mukhrovani base many of them hardened veterans of Georgia's disastrous civil war in Abkhazia. According to some unconfirmed local media reports, upwards of 1,000 malcontent soldiers had joined the original mutinous contingent of about 500 National Guardsmen. Relatives of the renegades have told reporters that the rebellion was sparked by severe social and economic problems affecting the military. However, Kakha Imnadze, President Eduard Shevardnadze's press secretary, described the action as an attempted coup d'etat.
Conditions within the military establishment have declined precipitously in recent years. In an early march letter from Tevzadze to Shevardnadze, the defense minister warned about dire conditions in the 12,000-strong Georgian military. In the letter, Tevzadze reported that soldiers had not been paid in 16 months. He also said that budgetary constraints meant that troops were undernourished. Since the beginning of 2001, the Georgian Defense Ministry has received only 19 percent of its expected budget allocations, barely enough to keep troops clothed and fed.
The mutiny is the latest in a string of destabilizing developments that has riven Georgia since it gained independence in 1991. The civil wars in Abkhazia and South Ossetia dealt the most serious damage to state-building efforts. President Shevardnadze has also survived several assasination attempts. The fact that the mutineers are well armed combat veterans has some leading defense and political figures concerned about renewed civil war. "If they begin shooting, it will be a tragedy for the nation," said former Defense Minister Gia Kharkharashvili.
Dimitri Bit-Suleiman is a freelance journalist based in Georgia.