Mutiny reported at base outside Tbilisi

May 5, 2009
A mutiny reportedly took place at a Georgian military base about six miles outside of Tbilisi this morning. According to a report in the New York Times, Georgian forces surrounded a tank that was accused of being part of the plot, with Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili entering the base to personally negotiate the unit's surrender. The base commander has apparently been arrested.

I'm not sure if this is correct or not, but I heard from a number of people this morning that major roads leading into and out of Tbilisi had been closed. 

The mutiny comes just a day before NATO exercises are to begin in Georgia. The exercises will be held from May 6 to June 3, and will include troops from
Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Serbia, Spain, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom and the United States.

According to the story in the Times, Georgian president Saakashvili later implied in a television address that Russia had been involved in the mutiny.

“We have information that the Russian Federation wants to exacerbate the situation in Georgia,” Mr. Saakashvili said. “We are asking our northern neighbor to refrain from any provocations." 

Russian officials denied any role in the unrest. Alexei Pavlov, a spokesman for President Dmitri Medvedev called the accusations “too stupid for us to comment on.”
The mutiny came during a period of extended political uncertainty in Tbilisi. On April 9, there were protests in cities across Georgia against Saakashvili (including 30-50 thousand in Tbilisi), calling for the president to resign immediately. While protests in cities like Batumi and Kutaisi lasted only one day, in Tbilisi they have continued ever since. In three separate parts of town--in front of the parliament, the presidential palace, and the national television studios--groups ranging from a few hundred to several thousand have kept up the protests on a daily basis.

In the middle of April, the opposition--a broad coalition of parties--announced that they would start bringing in protesters from other regions of Russia, and soon after that they began constructing 'cells'--small shanties meant to evoke prison cells--in the three main protest cites in Tbilisi.

Protest 'cells' blocking traffic on Rustaveli Street, downtown Tbilisi's main drag

I am hardly an expert on Georgian politics, but that of course won't stop me from making a few observations:

1) I think the government has demonstrated a level of tolerance for the protests that is truly noteworthy for this part of the world (and others). For nearly one month, traffic in downtown Tbilisi has ground to slow crawl with large sections of two major arteries cut off by permanent protest. Moreover, even on government-controlled television, news of the protests has been broadcast (although not to the same degree that these protests have been shown on independent television).

2) I haven't talked about the protests with more than perhaps 30 Georgians--usually academic types and taxi drivers. The people I have spoken with about the protests have, however, been pretty much evenly divided. The people I've met who are the most vociferously against Saakashvili have almost all been from the perestroika generation--people who came of age in the late 1980s. People from this age group also seem well represented at the demonstrations.

3) Compared with the often breathless coverage of the 'colored revolutions' in 2004-2005, I've found the disdain with which the current Georgian protests have been covered in some places a little interesting. See, for example, the very negative treatment received by the protests on the websites of neoconservative Eurasia thinktank the Jamestown Foundation and Radio Free Europe. The coverage of the protests on the Open Society Institute-financed, meanwhile, has been much more intelligent and nuanced, but still tends to focus upon themes like the divided nature and incompetence of the opposition, rather than looking at the reasons behind anti-Saakashvili sentiment in Georgia beyond the bluster of an easily-mocked circle of opposition spokespersons. In general, I've found the coverage the protests have received in the New York Times and various European news sources to be considerably more balanced, if lamentably sparse and difficult to find. 

Maybe I'm being unfair, but my sense is that if protests of this size and duration were taking place in, say, Belarus, both neo-con and mainstream news organizations would be taking them a lot more seriously, and putting the narrative emphasis upon what the government was or was not doing, rather than the opposition.

In some ways, the current protests have reminded me of the protests which took place in Istanbul and other large cities in Turkey in the wake of the Susurluk scandal of 1996-97. At 9 pm every night, people all over town would flash their lights on and off, honk their horns, and generally just make a lot of noise. After several weeks of this, however, people just got tired of this and interest dwindled. No one took to the streets, the government didn't pay any attention to what was going on, and eventually people just got on with their lives.

The protests taking place in Tbilisi have likewise been chugging on without any apparent direction for some time. The opposition tried to spice things up a bit by brining in folks from outlying districts and then building the cells, but time isn't on their side. In particular, the traffic problems created by the protests are a major point of aggravation, and opposition leaders are under considerable pressure to make some sort of tangible progress, and soon. 
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