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NATO exercises in Georgia begin

By Temuri Kiguradze
Thursday, May 7
The first stage of the Cooperative Longbow 09/Cooperative Lancer 09 exercises got underway at the Georgian military base of Vaziani on the morning of May 6 as planned. A Georgian Defence Ministry spokesman said the majority of the participants in these NATO-backed trainings had already arrived at the base. Servicemen from more than a dozen countries are now discussing the technical details of the exercises, the operational part of which will start on May 11.

The NATO Press Centre has announced that the exercises will be divided in two stages, indoor classroom training to begin with and then field exercises at the military polygon, which will involve the use of light firearms and armoured vehicles, from May 18 to June 1. Italian Brigadier General Giovanni Savarese will lead the exercises.

The Kremlin has protested strongly against NATO holding exercises in Georgia. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has called them "provocative" and stated that "exercises must not be held there, where a war has been fought." Moscow called on the invited countries to withdraw. The Georgian military command has confirmed that two countries, Moldova and Armenia, have officially withdrawn. The Russian media has reported that Estonia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Serbia and Switzerland are also going to pull out, each country giving different reasons for this including a lack of finance. However it is believed that more than 1,000 servicemen will take part. "Georgia is an independent and sovereign state and has the right to conduct any kind of exercises on its territory," stated the Georgian Foreign Ministry, replying to the accusation from Russia.

"The planned exercises in Georgia will be held in accordance with the schedule," Georgian Defence Minister David Sikharulidze has stated, speaking to the local journalists. "The exercises were planned a year ago, and neither Georgia nor NATO would change their plans," he said. "The exercises contribute to the Euro-Atlantic integration of Georgia and enhance the compatibility of the Georgian armed forces with NATO standards. The exercises, which are part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace Programme, "target improving cooperation in the reaction to crises and in peacekeeping operations," the Minister said. Heavy military hardware will not be used.

The Cooperative Longbow 09/Cooperative Lancer 09 trainings are starting at a difficult time. On May 5, Tbilisi announced that there had been an "attempted armed mutiny" which it had suppressed by the end of the day. "A group of former defence and security officials who were dismissed shortly after the Rose Revolution have attempted to organize a mutiny in one of the units of the Georgian armed forces with the stated goal of thwarting the NATO-led exercises planned to take place on the territory of Georgia," stated the Georgian Foreign Ministry. The Georgian Interior Ministry announced that some of the "organizers of the mutiny" had close connections with Russia. Tbilisi also accused Russia of increasing its military presence in the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia which are regarded as Russian-occupied Georgian territories by the Georgian Government.

"These exercises may represent the first time Georgia has gained such attention from Russia side since the second Chechen war," stated Georgian military expert Koba Liklikadze, speaking to The Messenger on May 6. He added it’s not surprising that Russia objects to the trainings in the light of its own weakening position. Liklikadze considers that the storm raised by Moscow drew the world’s attention to these exercises even before they had started.

"Despite all Russia’s attempts NATO has not changed its decision [to conduct the exercises]. NATO has sent a clear signal to Russia that whatever the Russian position is NATO and Georgia will continue their cooperation," stated Chair of the Georgian Parliament David Bakradze, speaking with Georgian journalists on May 6.