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Georgia: National Guardsmen Mutiny Over Hardship

Prague, 25 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Hundreds of Georgian national guardsmen today seized a base of Interior Ministry troops near the capital Tbilisi in protest over deteriorating living standards in the country's armed forces.

The protesters' demands were reportedly not political, but the incident nonetheless sparked a military alert in the volatile southern Caucasus republic.

The mutineers, estimated at between 800 and 900, are said to have left their garrison in the village of Norio and moved without orders to a nearby base of Interior Ministry troops in Mukhrovani, about 25 kilometers east of Tbilisi.

Georgian authorities immediately sent emissaries to negotiate with the protesters, who are led by Koba Otinashvili, a veteran of the 1992 war in Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia.

The national guardsmen entered the Mukhrovani base with four Soviet-era T-72 heavy tanks and an unspecified number of armored vehicles. They were apparently joined later by some of the 200 or so Interior Ministry soldiers stationed at the base.

National Guard Commander General Major Jemal Chumburidze, who conducted negotiations on behalf of the government, said the mutineers demand "to be paid on time, to have normal conditions of service, and normal food."

At the same time, security was stepped up in Tbilisi, notably around the parliament and the State chancellery where President Eduard Shevardnadze has his office.

News reports quoted Security Minister Vakhtang Kutateladze as telling a Security Council meeting that the mutiny was "an attempt of a coup d'etat."

But in comments broadcast on Russia's NTV television channel, Georgian Deputy Security Minister Simon Nozadze seemed to downplay Kutateladze's statement.

"We know them all. We know the man who is leading the [mutinous] servicemen. Their demands are mostly of a social nature." Nozadze also said that Georgian authorities were not considering putting down the mutiny by force.

In a statement read on national radio this afternoon, Shevardnadze said that if the mutineers end their action today, he will meet with them on Sunday (May 27).

Soldiers and policemen were deployed around the Mukhrovani base, where Chumburidze and other officials were holding talks with the mutineers. Defense Minister David Tevzadze and former Security Minister Irakli Batiashvili were among those who joined the negotiations.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Georgia has had a long history of short-lived mutinies in its armed forces.

In an interview broadcast on state television late last month on Georgia's Army Day (April 30), Defense Minister Tevzadze complained that he has almost "no budget" to sustain the country's armed forces.

Life in the Georgian army is believed to have steadily deteriorated over the past few years. Army soldiers are underequipped and underfed. Most of them have not been paid for months.

Many Georgians believe that rampant corruption among the military's top echelons has also greatly contributed to the critical situation in the armed forces. National Library Director Levan Berdzenishvili told RFE/RL in an interview conducted in Tbilisi last month:

"Nobody shows any respect for the army nowadays. Nobody wants to be drafted and nobody would ever send his son to the army if he had the opportunity not to do so. In general, I wonder whether we need an army where conscripts begin starving from the very first day they get there, and where they don't [even] get shoes. We have many generals and few soldiers. We have an army of generals and all the money goes to [these people.]"

In comments broadcast today on Georgian television, one of the Mukhrovani mutineers accused the authorities of having "stuffed their pockets [with earnings from] the blood of the people."

A military parade scheduled for tomorrow to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Georgia's independence has been canceled due to a lack of funds. No independence day military parade has been held in Georgia since 1997.

(Koba Liklikadze of the Georgian Service contributed to this report.)