More than 200 soldiers, supporters of the late president Zviad Gamsakhurdia, rebelled against President Eduard Shevardnadze yesterday in western Georgia, a traditional Zviadist territory. They were led by Lieutenant-Colonel Akaki Eliava, a former Zviadist paramilitary chieftain who was amnestied in 1994 and coopted into the army as part of Shevardnadze’s reconciliation policy. Eliava and the Zviadist former vice-chairman of parliament, Nemo Burchuladze, issued a joint statement to the effect that they were restoring “legitimate power” in Georgia. Seizing at least ten tanks and other armament from two military garrisons, the mutineers advanced from the Senaki military base into the suburbs of Kutaisi, Georgia’s second-largest city. There they were blocked by stronger army troops under Defense Minister Davit Tevzadze. At least one loyalist soldier and four rebels were killed in one of several skirmishes.
Appearing on national television, Shevardnadze warned that he was prepared to order the army to attack the rebels unless they voluntarily return to barracks. This the rebels did at the end of the day, following tense negotiations with Security Minister Jemal Gakohidze and Imeretia Governor Teimur Shashiavili. The two officials were briefly held hostage during the negotiations.
The mutineers received armed support in only one village during their advance. They failed to cross from Imeretia into neighboring Mingrelia, Gamsakhurdia’s native area, where they could hope to pick up some support. Mingrelia remained tranquil, as it had during last February’s abortive Zviadist rising (Tbilisi television and radio, Prime-News, Iprinda, October 19).
Shevardnadze traced the mutiny to the attempts by “Georgia’s enemies” to derail plans for the transport of Caspian oil through Georgia. Indeed the location and timing of the rebellion lead to that conclusion. The Georgian section of the Baku-Supsa pipeline passes near area where the rebellion was staged. Moreover, on October 29 the oil consortium and the transit countries are due to announce a crucial decision regarding the Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey pipeline. The decision hangs in the balance. The oil consortium–Azerbaijan International Operating Company–reacted to yesterday’s mutiny by instantly suspending the work to enlarge and modernize the Georgian section of the pipeline. Azerbaijan and Turkey, however, were equally prompt in announcing their determination to forge ahead with the project. Azerbaijani President Haidar Aliev telephoned Shevardnadze to express his support. In a public statement, Aliev alluded to his own and Shevardnadze’s common experience of having to deal with this type of challenge (Turan, October 19).
It is for the moment unclear whether the Georgian rebels obtained any concessions–for example, a promise of legal immunity or of some sort of political dialogue–in return for ceasing their action. Shevardnadze offered that type of promise last February after two Zviadist-executed terrorist acts: the assassination attempt against the president and the kidnapping of four UN military observers. Shevardnadze’s response in both cases reflects his uppermost goal of defusing such crises quickly and painlessly, preventing Zviadist diehards from initiating a spiral of retaliation and counterretaliation in western Georgia. That alone could save the movement’s small and factionalized remnants from natural disappearance.
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