Georgian police have shot dead one of the accused masterminds of a military mutiny and badly wounded his two accomplices. The incident is sparking fresh controversy over a tank battalion rebellion against President Mikheil Saakashvili earlier in May.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs announced that ex-military commander Gia Krialashvili died from wounds suffered during a shootout with police in the outskirts of the Georgian capital during the night of May 20. Two other suspects, ex-military commander Levan Amiridze and retired Special Forces Gen. Koba Otanadze, were hospitalized for wounds deemed not to be life-threatening. The trio had been in hiding since the failed revolt on May 5. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Police reportedly intercepted the three riding in a minivan just outside of the capital; they claimed that the three men were en route to the breakaway region of South Ossetia, roughly an hour's drive from Tbilisi.
Police had earlier offered a 200,000-lari (just over $121, 580) reward for information leading to the capture of Otanadze, identified as the ringleader of the attempt to persuade the Mukhrovani tank battalion to help overthrow President Saakashvili.
The conspirators' supposed dash toward South Ossetia has revived debate over whether Russia was somehow involved in stoking the revolt. In video footage earlier broadcast on Georgian television, one of the co-conspirators, former Special Forces unit commander Gia Ghvaladze, told undercover agents that Russian troops in South Ossetia were ready to cross over into Georgian-controlled territory, join the rebels and invade Tbilisi to install a pro-Moscow government.
Many opponents of President Saakashvili were quick to dismiss the plot -- or at least its Russian dimension -- as chimerical, while Moscow called the accusations "delirious." Police investigators have not stated definitively whether they believe the incident was the work of a handful of disgruntled commanders, or part of a wider scheme. "Some detainees say and our observations show that the steps taken by the mutineers were synchronized with the Russian troop movements [in South Ossetia and Abkhazia]," Interior Ministry spokesperson Shota Utiashvili told EurasiaNet. "But we need more evidence before we make this connection."
In a May 11 interview with Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy, President Saakashvili back-pedaled on the Kremlin's link. "I've never said that we have precise information on this," Saakashvili told the radio station.
Some experts suggest that allegations of a Russian connection are providing a convenient excuse for the Saakashvili administration to strengthen its oversight of the military. A tough response against the Mukhrovani mutineers can send an important signal to other potential trouble-makers, said independent military analyst Irakli Sesiashvili.
"Many in the military are unhappy about losing the war . . . and they also watch political tensions in Tbilisi," Sesiashvili, a former military ombudsman, said. "Fearing further manifestations of disobedience in the army -- and the likelihood of this is high after the war, and given the political strife in the country -- the government is tightening the screws on the army."
Utiashvili confirmed that the conspirators made attempts to reach out to other military units, appealing to them to join the rebellion.
Sesiashvili believes that Saakashvili has bolstered his political position, both at home and abroad, through his decisive response to the uprising. "First off, he demonstrated to the Western partners that, unlike [ex-President Eduard] Shevardnadze, he has the situation under control. He is not easy to overthrow and remains a stable partner here."
In 2001, Shevardnadze also faced a mutiny at Mukhrovani, when a National Guard battalion took control of a State Security Ministry base. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive.] The then-president pardoned the mutineers, who included the now detained Otanadze and slain ex-officer Krialashvili.
By contrast, Saakashvili ordered dozens of tanks and an army brigade to Mukhrovani, and threatened to open fire on the mutineers if they did not surrender.
Sesiashvili believes that by employing such a large military force, Saakashvili also sent a message to his increasingly vocal domestic opponents. He clearly demonstrated to his domestic political enemies that "if push comes to shove, he has loyal troops that are ready to defend him," Sesiashvili said.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.