Thursday, May 7, 2009

NATO holds Georgia war games, Russia critical

Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili
May 6

NATO launched military exercises in former Soviet Georgia on Wednesday after heavy criticism from neighboring Russia and a brief mutiny in the Georgian military.

Russia — which regards NATO as a Cold War relic with intrusive ambitions to expand into former Soviet countries — angrily dismissed as a "provocation" Georgian accusations that Tuesday's mutiny was a coup attempt engineered in Moscow.

Adding to tensions, Russia on Wednesday expelled two Canadian diplomats who worked at NATO offices in Moscow. The Foreign Ministry said the NATO employees' expulsion was meant as retaliation for the alliance's decision to kick out two Russian envoys from of its headquarters in Brussels, apparently over a February spy scandal.

"We, naturally, were forced to react," Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in televised comments Wednesday, adding the reciprocal measure was simply playing by the "rules of the game."

Georgia has stepped back from its initial allegations that Tuesday's mutiny was orchestrated by Moscow to topple Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, and now say it was aimed at disrupting the NATO exercises.

Hundreds of Georgian soldiers surrendered late Tuesday after a daylong standoff at the Mukhrovani tank battalion headquarters near the capital, Tbilisi, during which they had barred the defense minister from entering and declared they would refused to follow orders.

Some Georgian opposition members called the mutiny a charade, cooked up by Saakashvili to rally disgruntled Georgians around the beleaguered president. Opposition supporters have protested for weeks in the capital, accusing the president of corruption, mismanagement and provoking Georgia's August war with Russia.

Russian-Georgian relations have been tense since the pro-Western Saakashvili came to power amid a popular revolution in 2003, and worsened after the war and Russia's recognition of two breakaway Georgian regions.

Russia is also annoyed at Georgia courting closer ties with NATO, the United States and the European Union, and is especially riled by the NATO military exercises under way at a military base near Tbilisi — not far from the base at which Tuesday's revolt occurred.

Russian officials view the war games as a typical manifestation of Western meddling, and have accused the alliance of intervening in Georgia's domestic politics by holding the exercises.

Georgian Defense Ministry spokesman David Dzhokhadze told The Associated Press that no battlefield maneuvers were planned until at least May 11, and meetings would dominate proceedings until then.

Georgia expects 15 countries to take part in the NATO exercises, Dzhokhadze said, Switzerland, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Serbia said they would not take part. Armenia has also said it would bow out, but Dzhokhadze said Georgia has yet to be notified.

Associated Press writer David Nowak contributed to this report from Moscow.

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