|Many Georgians believe joining Nato will help curb Russian influence in the region [AFP]
The start of nearly a month of Nato military exercises in Georgia has provoked anger in Russia less than a year after Moscow and Tbilisi found themselves at war.
The former Soviet republic still covets membership of the military alliance which it sees as pivotal to its future security and independence.
Men in camouflage uniforms huddle around computers inside the command centre at Vaziani army base in eastern Georgia, getting ready for the start of the Nato military exercises.
While they work to install the communications systems, a commander at the base, Major Giorgi Kalandadze, welcomed Nato's presence as a show of support for Georgia after its defeat in the war with Russia in August last year.
But as he was speaking to Al Jazeera, a mutiny was allegedly being planned just a few kilometres away at another Georgian army base in Mukhrovani.
The day before troops arrived on May 6 to prepare for the exercises, senior officers at Mukhrovani tried to stage an uprising in order to disrupt the high-profile Nato exercises, the authorities say.
The mutiny also coincided with opposition protests in the capital, Tbilisi, raising fears of wider destabilisation.
"At one point in 2008, this small, impoverished state was the third-largest contributor of troops to the US-led mission in Iraq"
The alleged plotters quickly surrendered without shots being fired after the authorities sent in tanks, armoured vehicles, helicopters and truckloads of soldiers.
Although the Nato exercises were not affected, President Mikheil Saakashvili admitted that the incident caused "damage" to his country's reputation.
The exercises are based around a fictitious crisis-response scenario, and involve around 1,000 soldiers from more than a dozen alliance countries and partner states.
They were planned more than a year ago, but neighbouring Russia has condemned them as "dangerous" and "provocative", despite the fact that Moscow was invited to participate.
Russia's envoy to Nato, Dmitry Rogozin, said the Western military alliance would be better off holding the exercises in a "madhouse" than in a country where soldiers were "rioting against their own president".
Georgia is keen to win Nato membership, but the Kremlin does not want the alliance to extend its reach further into the former Soviet Union, which it sees as its own 'sphere of influence'.
Although the Russian leadership regards increased Nato presence on its borders as a threat, Saakashvili's government insists that Moscow cannot dictate Georgia's foreign policy.
|Despite Moscow's objections Nato says the 'door is open' for Georgia to join [AFP]
"The era of 'spheres of influence' is over; it was over with the fall of the Iron Curtain," Giorgi Kandelaki, the deputy chairman of the Georgian parliament's foreign affairs committee, said.
Kandelaki pointed out that more than 70 per cent of Georgians who voted in a plebiscite last year said they wanted their country to join Nato.
"We have the right to choose our own destiny and our own political system but, unfortunately, Russia regards democracy on its border as a threat," he said.
Many Georgians see Nato membership as a guarantee of security amid the country's long-running disputes with its former Soviet masters in Moscow.
"From a strictly military point of view, Georgia would be much safer and its independence and sovereignty would be protected," Tamriko, an unemployed doctor in Tbilisi, said.
"I think what happened last August wouldn't have happened if Georgia was a member of Nato, because the principle of protecting member countries against invasion would have been used," said Keti, a student in the capital.
In an attempt to show that it is a reliable military partner, Georgia has sent soldiers to join peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo, and at one point in 2008, this small, impoverished state was the third-largest contributor of troops to the US-led mission in Iraq.
Many Georgians were disappointed when Nato decided not to grant their country a 'membership action plan' in April last year, although the alliance stated that Georgia would be allowed to join at some unspecified time in the future.
The country's ambitions were further damaged by the disastrous war, when the Russian army pushed deep into Georgia and destroyed a lot of its military infrastructure.
Just 70km from Vaziani, where the Nato exercises are taking place, Russian troops are still holding positions which they occupied during the conflict, and Moscow has called for a weapons embargo on Georgia to prevent the country from rebuilding its armed forces.
But according to Colonel Nugzar Tsintsadze, the exercises prove that the Georgian army is still functioning despite what he described as last year's "tragedy".
"I want to say to the people who think the Georgian army collapsed after the war: the Georgian army exists and will continue to exist, and can carry out its obligations," he declared.
Freeze on contacts
The five-day clash between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia put a freeze on contacts between Nato and Moscow.
The relationship had started to thaw recently, with Nato needing Moscow's assistance for the alliance's mission in Afghanistan, but it was strained yet again by the refusal to cancel the exercises in Georgia and the expulsion of two Russian diplomats from Nato over espionage allegations.
Despite Moscow's objections, Nato has stressed that its "door remains open" to Georgia.
But Giorgi Khutsishvili, a political analyst at the International Centre on Conflict and Negotiation in Tbilisi, says that since the war, Georgian hopes of rapid accession to membership of the alliance have faded.
The fighting undermined hopes that a peaceful solution could be found to the bitter conflicts over the Russian-backed rebel regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Moscow has recognised as independent states but Georgia regards as its sovereign territory.
"Georgia had to show that it was acting dynamically in the peace process and developing dialogue to make the situation more stable, but now this is unachievable," Khutsishvili said.
Thousands of Russian troops have been permanently stationed in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Moscow is also building military bases there, and recently deployed Russian border guards to police the ceasefire lines, meaning that any outbreak of shooting could lead to renewed military confrontation.
"Because Russia is building up its military presence in the conflict areas, it means the situation will remain unstable and even explosive for years, because Georgia will never accept this military presence which it regards as occupation," Khutsishvili suggested.
"It all makes for a situation where Georgian accession to Nato membership is a very distant prospect, unless the geo-political situation changes dramatically."