No-one who knows the Georgian Army can have been seriously surprised by the mutiny which occurred on May 25-26. If a country treats its soldiers the way Georgian soldiers have been treated in recent years, this is what it can expect. Many African regimes have treated their militaries in a similar manner over the years and the result has been the military coups and attempted coups which have racked that unhappy continent.
Despite some initial alarmist statements by Georgian officials, the latest incident in Georgia stopped well short of being an attempted coup. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives]. It was really only an armed protest, or military strike, directed above all against the non-payment of wages and other economic issues. On May 25, a battalion of 400 National Guardsmen seized a base of Interior Ministry troops at Mukhrovani, about 25 miles from Tbilisi, and were joined by soldiers at that base. The protestors claimed very credibly that pay for officers in the unit was 14 months in arrears, and that the food and living conditions of the soldiers are appalling. They agreed to return to duty the next day, after President Eduard Shevardnadze went to the base to negotiate with them in person, and promised that money would be forthcoming and that no action would be taken against the leaders of the protest.
But if this was not a coup attempt, even a strike by men with tanks and machine guns is likely to carry greater weight, and bring greater destabilization, than a strike by men with garbage trucks or mailbags; and given Georgia's lamentable experiences from 1990 to 1994, any military action of this kind is bound to cause serious alarm. On May 26, the military protest seems to have contributed to the radicalism of a violent demonstration by nationalist demonstrators in Tbilisi demanding the removal of Shevardnadze.
As a matter of fact, the armed rebellions and coups which took place in the early 1990s are probably one reason for the condition of the Georgian army today, which is miserable even by post-Soviet standards. It would appear that the Shevardnadze administration decided that to reduce the risks of future military unrest, the armed forces in Georgia would be divided among several different state institutions.
According to a Western diplomat, interviewed in April 2001, "Georgia has a huge number of police and Interior Ministry troops relative to its population, and these are much better supplied than the Army, which is in a dreadful state
Anatol Lieven is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC. He covered Georgian events for The Times (London) in the early and mid-1990s, and visited the country for research in December 2000.