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Caucasus: Does The Georgian-Russian Rapprochement Threaten Chechens?

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Georgia's newly elected president, Mikheil Saakashvili, on an official visit to Russia, earlier this week promised President Vladimir Putin full assistance against armed Chechen separatists and called for enhanced cooperation among security services of both countries in the fight against "terrorism." The Kremlin welcomed Saakashvili's pledges, hailing the Georgian leader as a "responsible politician." Could the rapprochement between Moscow and Tbilisi represent a threat to Chechens?

Prague, 13 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Assessing the results of the visit Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili paid to Moscow this week, a high-ranking Kremlin official said Russia had found a reliable partner in the newly elected South Caucasus leader.

President Vladimir Putin's foreign policy adviser, Sergei Prikhodko, said on 11 February that the Kremlin saw in Saakashvili a "responsible politician who is ready to answer for what is happening in Georgia."

The two presidents, who held a four-hour meeting at the Kremlin that same day, vowed to work toward boosting bilateral ties and repairing what Saakashvili described as "years of enmity and misunderstanding" between Tbilisi and Moscow.

"For four years, Chechen refugees in Georgia have been used as bargaining chips in political games."
One of the main focuses of the Kremlin talks was the situation in Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya, which borders Georgia to the north. Approximately one-tenth of the 800-kilometer-long Russian-Georgian border runs along Chechnya.

Talking to reporters after his meeting on 11 February with Putin, Saakashvili said he had offered his host the opportunity to join forces in enhancing security along the border and making it impenetrable to Chechen separatist fighters: "I [today] summoned [Valeri Chkheidze], the head of the Georgian border guard administration, [to Moscow] so that he could talk to his Russian colleagues. They signed an agreement on the exchange of information. I hope we will agree on joint border patrols so that [next] spring [Chechen] fighters will not be able to enter Georgia or, if there are fighters in Georgia now, they will not be able to enter Russia. All armed elements must be isolated, arrested, and sent to court. This is absolutely obvious."

Aleksandr Manilov, the deputy head of Russia's border-guard administration, said yesterday that the agreement signed in Moscow would be "a real contribution to the fight against international terrorism and transnational crime."

In comments made upon his return to Tbilisi, Chkheidze said further cooperation would be agreed upon when his Russian counterpart Vladimir Pronichev visits Georgia "in March or April."

Using the same word Russian officials use to describe Chechen armed separatists, Saakashvili said in Moscow he and Putin agreed cooperation should also include an exchange of intelligence on "terrorists."

"Our intelligence services will exchange information, in particular information related to the fight against terrorism. These terrorists are creating exactly as many problems for us as they do for Russia. Should there be any terrorists left on our territory we would like to get rid of them very rapidly. Otherwise, we would like to set up mechanisms that will prevent them from entering our territory."

Chechen separatist leaders have not reacted to Saakashvili's statement and were not immediately available for comment.

Russia had long accused Saakashvili's ousted predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze, of allowing Chechen fighters to use Georgian territory as a training field and a rear base of operations. Moscow's primary focus was on the remote Pankisi Gorge, which lies immediately south of the Chechen border.

Pankisi is home to some 7,000 ethnic Chechen Georgians known as Kists. It also hosts an estimated 4,000 Chechen refugees, the vast majority of whom have been granted tentative legal status by the Shevardnadze administration.

Georgia's outgoing government has always denied Moscow's charges, saying only a few dozen wounded fighters were based in Pankisi and that the area was mainly a refuge for civilians who had fled the combat zone in Chechnya.

But Georgia's new president this week dismissed those theories.

Russia's "Vremya Novostei" daily yesterday quoted Saakashvili as saying Chechen fighters in the past have been allowed to move freely through Georgian territory. The Georgian leader reportedly offered Russia the opportunity to send additional army officers to Georgia to make sure that that would not happen again.

Although this was not the first time Georgia proposed working together with Russia to secure their common border, "Vremya Novostei" noted yesterday that Saakashvili told Russian leaders "what Moscow had long wanted to hear from his predecessor."

Yielding to joint Russian-American pressure, Shevardnadze two years ago ordered a security crackdown on Pankisi that resulted in the arrest of 13 suspected Chechen separatists whom human-rights organizations say were refugees. Five were extradited to Russia and the remainder have been either released or jailed in Georgia.

Moscow says this is not enough and recently reiterated claims that separatist fighters and what it called "foreign mercenaries" are freely entering Chechnya from Georgia.

Some fear Saakashvili's insistence on seeking better ties with Russia might backfire on Georgian-based refugees.

Claiming many fighters are hiding among civilians, Moscow is demanding that all refugees scattered throughout the North and South Caucasus regions return home.

Russian government officials have made several visits to Pankisi in recent months in an attempt at securing the repatriation of refugees. But so far only a handful of them have yielded to Moscow's promises of a safe return and the vast majority of civilians still fear for their lives if they leave the Pankisi Gorge.

Aslanbek Abdurzakov is an ethnic Chechen campaigner who heads a Georgian-based nongovernmental group known as the International Committee to Protect Human Rights in the Chechen Republic. He tells RFE/RL he does not expect the burgeoning Russian-Georgian rapprochement to herald a dramatic change in what he describes as the "already difficult situation" of Chechen refugees.

"For four years, Chechen refugees in Georgia have been used as bargaining chips in political games. Naturally, this worries us a lot and, should something unexpected happen tomorrow -- such as a decision to extradite [refugees to Russia], for example -- we wouldn't be surprised. We're expecting any kind of development. Already under Shevardnadze, five Chechens were extradited to Russia as a gift to Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin]. In that regard, [Saakashvili's recent statements] just mark a certain continuity."

On 11 February, Georgia's Caucasus Press news agency reported Prosecutor-General Irakli Okruashvili -- who was in Moscow with Saakashvili -- had agreed with his Russian counterpart on a prisoner swap that includes one of the 13 fighters arrested in Pankisi in August 2002.

A few days ago (4 February), Georgian human rights activist Nana Kakabadze told journalists in Tbilisi the Saakashvili administration was considering extraditing "dozens" of Chechens to Russia.

Kakabadze's then said she had information showing the operation would take place before the Georgian leader goes to Moscow.

Although there has been no report of any recent deportation, the Tbilisi-based "Mtavari Gazeti" opposition daily today says Saakashvili could give his consent to the extradition of an unspecified number of Chechen prisoners in hope Russia would soon ease visa restrictions it introduced more than two years ago for Georgian citizens. The newspaper's claims could not be confirmed.

In comments made to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service the day before Putin met Saakashvili at the Kremlin, Kakabadze said Russian authorities were stepping up pressure on the new Georgian leadership in hope it agrees to deport all male refugees over 18 who allegedly took part in combat operations in Chechnya.

"You cannot extradite [these] refugees to the country they come from because what awaits them there is torture and [other] inhuman treatments. Our constitution forbids that and our country is a signatory of international conventions against torture. We want to remind our government that they have no rights -- neither moral or legal -- to hand over these people to Russia."

Aslanbek Abdurzakov said he had no confirmation of any Georgian plan to extradite Pankisi-based refugees. Yet last week (6 February), Russia's Prima news agency quoted him as saying he could not rule out such a possibility. "I would liken the current situation to the calm before the storm," Abdurzakov told RFE/RL. "Everyone here is expecting something to happen."