Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 104

On May 25, two elite units of Georgia’s armed forces staged a mutiny that ended peacefully twenty-four hours later. Both units–the National Guard’s Norio battalion (part of the Defense Ministry) and the Internal Ministry’s Mukhrovani regiment–are staffed by seasoned officers and are better armed and trained than most of the other units of those two services. Their respective commanders, Giorgi Krialashvili and Koba Otanadze, earned good military reputations with government forces during the conflicts of the early and mid-1990s, and are closely acquainted with Georgia’s top military commanders.

The National Guard battalion, acting without orders, broke up a planned exercise and moved from its base at Norio to the internal troops’ base at Mukhrovani, which is situated some forty kilometers from Tbilisi, on the approaches to the Chechen-populated Pankisi Gorge. After joining forces, the two units were said to have ten armored vehicles at their disposal–a mix of tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers. At that point, the state leadership expected a reenactment of the late Lieutenant-Colonel Akaki Eliava’s 1998 march on Tbilisi. According to initial reports, which were later neither confirmed nor disproved, the mutineers raised political demands, demanded access to the media in order to air those demands and fired on the car of Chief Military Prosecutor Badri Bitsadze, who had attempted to parlay with them.

The mutineers’ disposition changed after troops of the Defense and National Security Ministries sealed off the Mukhrovani base while representatives of the state insisted on parlaying. Defense Minister Davit Tevzadze, his predecessor Gia Karkarashvili (now a progovernment parliamentary deputy), former state security chief Irakli Batiashvili (now an opposition parliamentarian) and human rights ombudswoman Nana Devdariani all negotiated inside the base for a peaceful end to the mutiny. At the end of the day, President Eduard Shevardnadze arrived at the base and managed to defuse the situation by guaranteeing full immunity to those involved. By the next day, May 26, the National Guard battalion had returned to its base.

In statements to the country on May 26 and 28, Shevardnadze described the soldiers’ grievances–which focused on the low and delayed wages and on dismal living conditions in the barracks–as purely economic and as fully justified. The president conceded that the state was directly responsible for that situation and that he himself bore a share of the moral responsibility. On those grounds, he publicly and fully excused the soldiers of the two units for their transgression. Devdariani spoke along similar lines. The commanders and officers of both units involved arrived in Tbilisi yesterday and conferred with the state leadership about their grievances.

The Military Prosecutor’s Office issued in turn a legal opinion in which it listed reasons for not instituting criminal proceedings. It accepted the soldiers’ version that they had, in essence, been on strike over social grievances and noted that they neither used force and nor caused losses to state property. It did find that the two units had breached military regulations, but that breach was covered by the president’s guarantees of immunity to those involved.

Top state authorities evidenced concern lest the mutiny be exploited politically–as Eliava’s had been–by the small but vociferous Zviadist opposition. On May 26, the tenth anniversary of Georgia’s independence, some 400 supporters of the late president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, clashed with police in downtown Tbilisi. The Zviadists used wood crosses and sharpened wood staves to charge at the baton-wielding police. Dozens were injured, mostly and most heavily among the police. There were no arrests made, however. Zviadists are deeply factionalized, and not all are violence prone. The former president’s firebrand widow, Manana Archvadze-Gamsakhurdia, did not attend this demonstration.

For his part, in downtown Tbilisi Shevardnadze attended the unveiling of a monument to Merab Mamardashvili, the philosopher and advocate of national independence, on the tenth anniversary of the proclamation of independent statehood. The Russian sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, a sympathizer of Soviet-era dissidents, had been commissioned at Shevardnadze’s initiative to create this monument.

The decisions to desist from legal action against either the military mutineers or the Zviadists reflects Shevardnadze’s cautious handling of a potentially volatile political situation. He and the government have pledged to identify budgetary resources for addressing at least some of the military’s problems, and to persevere with the national reconciliation policy regarding Zviadists. In 1998-2000, Eliava’s rebellious activities had found a few armed Zviadist supporters in western Georgia. This time around, Ajaria’s television assailed the central government in connection with the brief mutiny.

The state leadership is preoccupied to avoid a politicization of social grievances, a coalescence of otherwise disparate malcontented groups, and above all an external exploitation of economic hardships within Georgia (Kavkasia-Press, Prime-News, Black Sea Press, Georgian Television, Tbilisi Radio, May 25-28; Ajar Television (Batumi), May 27; see the Monitor, February 13, April 12).