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Analysis & Opinion
06.05.09 The Conspiracy That Never Was
By Sergei Balashov

With Russia and Georgia accusing each other of threatening troop buildups, Abkhazia and South Ossetia signing border patrol agreements with Russia and NATO military exercises in Georgia provoking outrage in Moscow, a Gordian knot of tensions has been tightening around the Caucasus recently. Now Georgia has accused Russia of backing a military coup, and NATO and Russia are embroiled in a tit-for-tat diplomatic row. But none of these rows seem to be backed by substance.

Growing tension between Russian and Georgia in recent weeks peaked on Tuesday when the Georgian interior ministry announced it had foiled a military coup against President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government. The coup was supposedly orchestrated by “former high ranking Defense ministry officials who had ties with Russian special services.”

On the same day as the alleged coup was exposed, a Georgian armored battalion mutinied against the Tbilisi government, refusing to carry out any orders. The soldiers demanded the government start talks with the opposition. Saakashvili personally negotiated with the battalion’s commanders before they surrendered and then met with the rebels, rebuking them in front of TV cameras and attempting to interrogate them, asking for what their source of support was.

Russians rejected any accusations of planning or supporting any mutinies in Georgia, calling the latest incident an “agony of Saakashvili’s regime” and questioned the authenticity of the coup itself, which looked rather suspicious.
“The situation in Georgia today is much different from what we had during [Second President Eduard] Shevarnadze’s tenure and even Saakashvili’s first term in office. The government and its key bodies, especially the ministry of defense, are getting more financial support and I don’t think any rebellions there are likely. I would not say anybody [in the government] wants to remove Saakashvili from political life altogether,” said Eugenia Voiko, a foreign policy expert at the Center of Political Trends, a Moscow-based think tank.

The alleged coup happened amid rising tensions between Georgia and Russia, leading to speculation about the origins and purpose of first engaging in mutual accusations of military buildup with Russia and then organizing a phony uprising against the government.

Things heated up last week when Russia signed a border defense pact with South Ossetia and Abkhazia last week, formally assuming control of their borders. Georgia saw this move as retaliation for the NATO-led military exercises that started in Georgia on Wednesday. They claimed Russia had over 10,000 troops in the breakaway regions, while Russia was not supposed to have more than 3700 deployed in each. Russian ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin then said Georgia was deploying troops, artillery and other military equipment in regions adjacent to the border.
The Partnership for Peace exercises, which have triggered a bitter reaction in Russia, were at the core of the latest feud between the two countries. Russia and Georgia have had troubled relations since the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 that brought pro-Western president Saakashvili to power.

The Russians have repeatedly stated they would not participate and discouraged other countries from doing so, accusing NATO of another provocation.

The row led to the expulsion of two Russian diplomats on espionage charges, a move that Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, said would not be left unanswered.

That answer came on Wednesday when Russia expelled two Canadian diplomats who worked for NATO’s Moscow office. The Canadian embassy called this move counterproductive and some in Russia agreed with this assessment.
“This shouldn’t be a big deal, these exercises pose no threat or danger to Russia whatsoever and could not in any way be harmful. I believe this is Russia’s second big mistake after recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They should not compromise relations with the EU and the United States over this,” said General Director of the Centre of Political Information Alexei Mukhin.

President Dmitry Medvedev denounced the war games as a “buildup of military muscle.” The PfP program has existed since 1994 with the aim of creating trust between NATO and other European countries, including former Soviet republics such as Georgia. The games that started this Wednesday are to practice peacekeeping rather than war fighting, and were planned before the military conflict between Russia and Georgia erupted last August.
It appears Russia does realize all that, but finds playing the aggressive tune more politically expedient at this moment.

“This situation is being taken advantage of to build up a military presence and secure the area around Sochi for the Olympic Games,” said Mukhin.

In the meantime, Saakashvili had his own games to play.

He has recently faced tough times at home, where he is facing staunch protests from the opposition, who have organized continuous rallies in the Georgian capital calling for Saakashvili’s to resign. He has been blamed for “falling into Russia’s trap” by engaging in last year’s military conflict, which led to Georgia’s losing a significant part of its territory. Disappointment over Saakashvili’s style of government, which opposition leaders say has become increasingly authoritarian, and his brutal spoiling of relations with the major regional power, Russia, are also fuelling discontent.

“He wanted to funnel the public discontent in another way and de-legitimize the opposition, making it look like they’re resorting to illegal methods,” said Voiko.

The timing of the “coup” also curiously coincided with the start of the Partnership for Peace exercises in Georgia, which Georgian authorities claim the rebels wanted to disrupt.

“Saakashvili clearly had an agenda here. By staging this coup he can now take the whole of Tbilisi under military control. That’s what he needs to keep things in order for the duration of the war games,” said Mukhin.
The source
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