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Russia, Georgia, and NATO - A Bad Week, CU Issue 32, May 11, 2009

It is always difficult to unravel the truth in the feud between Russia and Georgia. This week’s events are no exception. It is also often hard to judge what, in the tempestuous relationship between Russia and the West, is a real threat to relations and what is mere rhetoric (on the part of commentators, as well as diplomats). In that regard things are clearer – the relationship, after a brief improvement at the start of the year, has plunged back into acrimony.

The launch of the EU’s Eastern Partnership, Russia’s retaliatory expulsion of two NATO diplomats in a spying row, Russia’s cancellation of its participation in the NATO- Russia Council meeting in Brussels, the start of the Alliance’s exercises in Georgia, and the ‘coup plot’ of May 5 – all have made this a particularly bad week for optimists. The fact that many of these occurred in the same week was bad timing, but for Tbilisi and Moscow the exercises and the coup were certainly both parts of a bigger picture.

The abortive rebellion at a tank barracks outside Tbilisi lasted just a morning before it was put down by loyal troops, and much of the detail remains shadowy (RFE/RL, May 5). Colonel Mamuka Gorgiashvili, the leader of the mutinous battalion, was subsequently arrested. Also Gia Gvaladze, head of the Defense Ministry’s special task force in the 1990s, was arrested. It appeared, from video evidence later provided by the Interior Ministry, that the coup attempt had the support of several high-ranking officers.

The political opposition, currently in a street showdown with the authorities, claimed that the rebellion was stage-managed by the government to boost its position and divert attention from the protests (Civil.ge, May 5). Russia reacted to claims of its involvement with fury, and Tbilisi subsequently cut down on claims that Russia had financed the coup and was prepared to intervene with 5,000 troops. By the end of the week it was speculated that the mutiny was led and executed by a cabal of ex- officers, disillusioned with President Saakashvili after the disastrous war with Russia in August. 

Nonetheless, the involvement of elements of the Russian security services is not impossible. Two Georgian officials - the former head of the defence planning directorate and a member of the country’s NATO delegation - were detained this week, accused of spying for Russia. Whether or not the arrests were linked to the coup is unclear, but it adds to a mounting sense of unease in Tbilisi. This has been reinforced by the lack of progress in the confrontation with the opposition - talks between the demonstrators and the government broke down on May 8 – and occasional sparks of violence on the streets of the capital.

All of this adds up to an enormous headache for NATO, which had scheduled the exercises in Georgia a year ago and was unwilling to pull out, despite Russian anger at what the Kremlin called a “blatant provocation” (Kremlin.ru, April 30). Exasperated attempts to point out that no serious military hardware would be deployed fell on deaf ears. Moscow also attempted to put NATO and Georgia on the defensive this week when its troops began patrolling the borders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Russia’s anger is no doubt genuine, to an extent, but the increase in tension is also calculated to pressure the West into taking a step back from Georgia. That said, Tbilisi is guilty of playing the same game: even assuming that the mutiny was genuine, the immediate and public accusations against Russia were clearly intended to capitalise on the rebellion and secure declarations of NATO support.

Further demonstrations of Moscow’s attempt to isolate Georgia from NATO came at the May 9 military parade celebrating Russia’s victory in the Second World War. At the parade, President Medvedev stated that any “military adventurism” by certain countries would be “decisively rebuffed” (BBC News, May 9). This reference seems aimed at Georgia, rather than NATO – a significant omission in light of the usual verbal attacks on the Alliance at such events. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on May 10 reiterated the message, flatly stating that the NATO exercises were a “step backwards” in the US-Russia relationship (AFP, May 10).

The Alliance’s frustration with the mutual recriminations, including allegations by both sides that the other was building up their troop deployments around the breakaway provinces, was evident in a statement by the office of Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, which said that the exercise "shouldn't be misinterpreted or misused by anybody for internal political purposes".

Russia’s pressure on Georgia, and the coup attempt (assuming the two were not linked), are unlikely to seriously derail NATO’s support of Tbilisi. But they are likely to increase the sense of upheaval in the country, particularly if talks continue to fail and more instances of violence are seen. If the mutiny is accepted as genuine, then the government looks dangerously weak and incapable of controlling its own military. Given Georgia’s civil war of the 1990s, this is a dangerous parallel. If the opposition’s version of events – that the rebellion was a mere act of theatre by the authorities – then the government looks manipulative and desperate. Either scenario bodes ill for the Saakashvili administration. Similarly, the perceived increase in tensions around the border zones supports the opposition’s central claim – that President Saakashvili is irresponsible and provocative.

This has been Russia’s strategy for some time now: to increase the sense of instability in Georgia, and to warn NATO away from over-active support of President Saakashvili. Moscow is, despite the allegations by the government, unlikely to have been directly behind the coup attempt or the opposition protests. But in the absence of a direct link to anti-government forces, it is taking full advantage of the situation in the country to press home its message that President Saakashvili is an unstable autocrat and the country is falling apart. Prime Minister Putin neatly summarised the Kremlin’s view of the disturbances: "Demonstrators are dispersed with punches, opposition activists wounded, shot at, there is blood on the streets, the number of political prisoners is growing, there has been a mutiny."

Whether this week’s events have been a qualitative shift in the ongoing process, and whether they will ultimately lead to the overthrow of President Saakashvili or an overt withdrawal of support by the West (Russia would be happy with either of these, though obviously happier with both), is debatable. This is probably not a ‘perfect storm’. It is more likely that the recent events are unfortunately timed, to be sure, but are more reflective of a quantitative increase in tension. This increase is also not irreversible. If President Saakashvili can face down the opposition and ensure his control of the military, then, once the NATO exercises are over, we are likely to see a return to ‘business as usual’.

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