- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 7, 2009

Georgia claimed Tuesday to have put down a mutiny at a military base outside the capital, but its timing suggested a possible ploy by President Mikhail Saakashvili to draw attention away from popular protests against his rule.

The Georgian Interior Ministry said the government put down the mutiny at Mukhrovani military base late Monday and arrested its purported leader, Gia Ghvaladze, a former major in a paramilitary unit.

A senior U.S. State Department official, who spoke on the condition he not be named, said the coup appeared to have been foiled while still in its planning stages and would not affect NATO exercises with Georgia that began Wednesday. At the same time, he urged Georgians to “engage in serious negotiations to get [reforms] going.”

The announcement about the mutiny followed three weeks of demonstrations in the capital, Tbilisi, in April in which thousands of demonstrators demanded the president’s resignation.

On Wednesday, police beat protesters with truncheons in the first major outbreak of violence in a month.

Television footage showed at least two opposition leaders and several other people with blood on their bodies and clothing. A top opposition leader, Levan Gachechiladze, and other protesters appeared to have head injuries, the Associated Press reported.

Western disquiet with Mr. Saakashvili that has been growing since his government violently broke up similar demonstrations in 2007 and especially since he became embroiled in a brief war with Russia last year.

Aggressive moves toward Russia that led to a Russian invasion of Georgia raised questions in the U.S. and Europe about the Georgian’s judgment and dedication to democracy.

The war frayed relations between Georgia and its Western allies, said Kakha Kukava, leader of Georgia’s New Conservative Party, part of the opposition alliance.

Relations have not been helped by the election of Barack Obama as U.S. president in November. Mr. Saakashvili had made no secret of his support for his friend, the Republican candidate, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

“As for the opposition, we openly supported Mr. Obama’s election, but there is no direct sign yet that policy is changing,” Mr. Kukava said.

He said the opposition wants the Obama administration to push Georgia to reform.

“Politics in Georgia are made in Georgia, not in Washington, D.C.,” Mr. Saakashvili said in an interview with The Washington Times after Mr. Obama’s election.

There is some concern in Georgia that Mr. Obama could sell the country short in his efforts to repair relations between the U.S. and Russia.

The Kremlin has made no secret of its desire to get rid of Mr. Saakashvili, and continues to keep troops in Georgia in violation of the cease-fire agreements that ended the war in August. Russia says it has complied with the agreements, which it has interpreted differently from the West. However, neither the European Union, which negotiated the cease-fire, nor the U.S. seems willing to pressure Russia to comply with the agreement.

“We have been pretty clear that Russia remains in violation of the August 12 and September 8 cease-fire agreements,” said the senior State Department official.

The U.S. is using diplomatic channels to encourage Russian compliance, but economic penalties are off the table, he said.

Russia’s presence in Georgia’s breakaway province of South Ossetia safeguards its influence in the country. The Kremlin appears to want to undermine Georgia’s viability as a transit corridor for Central Asian and Caspian Basin oil and gas. Two pipelines running through Georgia offer the only alternative to Russian pipelines - and the only competition to Moscow’s dominance of Europe’s energy supply.

Russia immersed itself in South Ossetia’s first elections since the war, backing the ruling party, which it sees as a reliable and pliable ally. Moscow recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia shortly after the war.

An April 1 meeting between Mr. Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in London was largely cordial but revealed that contentious issues remain.

Moscow has repeatedly expressed opposition to NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine and the military exercises in Georgia. Russian analysts have portrayed the exercises as Western hypocrisy after the Obama administration expressed its desire to “reset” relations with Russia.

Nevertheless, Russia and the U.S. plan to begin talks in Moscow later this month on a new nuclear arms control treaty to succeed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that expires in December.

The recent protests are likely to further undermine the West’s perception of Georgia’s stability as a political ally and investment opportunity.

Moreover, opposition politicians fear that the coup attempt will be used as a pretext for a government crackdown on its political opponents.

“Foreign governments and their representatives are scared by the possible chaos in the country, which may follow Saakashvili’s departure, and they have some reason for that,” said Davit Usupashvili, leader of Georgia’s Republican Party, a member of the opposition alliance.

Georgia’s government has offered to start talks on reform issues but not on early elections. Many of the opposition parties are committed to removing Mr. Saakashvili, leaving no room for compromise.

“They have become hostages to their own promises,” said Nina Akhmeteli, a Georgian journalist.

The next presidential elections are scheduled for 2013 and parliamentary elections for 2012. Mr. Saakashvili, who was re-elected in January 2008 in early elections, cannot run again because of term limits. Since 1991, no Georgian president has served out a full term or been re-elected without accusations of vote rigging.

Concerns are growing that the opposition will fracture over engaging in talks, and more radical elements could pursue violent means. The opposition has limited its actions to civil disobedience so far, shutting down much of Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi’s main street.

Georgia has come a long way since the 2003 Rose Revolution, which swept Mr. Saakashvili to power in a pro-Western, pro-democracy wave. However, Georgia’s democracy continues to be carefully managed by Mr. Saakashvili’s National Movement party, according to international watchdog groups such as Transparency International Georgia and Human Rights Watch.

Strong personalities and personal relationships often dominate the country’s weak institutions. Georgia’s judicial system is prone to “telephone justice,” in which a telephone call from a government leader can influence a judge far more than what happens in the courtroom.

The government also has used Georgia’s anemic property rights to harass political rivals and potential rivals.

The ruling elite has kept a tight grip on the major television networks, the primary source of information for the vast majority of Georgians. The networks’ political coverage is more favorable to Mr. Saakashvili’s ruling party than to the opposition. The ruling elite’s control of the major networks is an open secret in Tbilisi, hidden behind opaque ownership groups.

Mr. Saakashvili did not respond to requests for comment on these reports. He has dismissed these claims in the past.

Still, there appears no likelihood of a popular uprising to overturn the regime.

“The declining number of protesters is indicative of the lack of appetite among the population for another revolution, despite growing discontent with the government,” said Ana Jelenkovic, an analyst with the Eurasia Group.

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