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Caucasus: Georgians, Chechens Take Stand Against Russia Over Pankisi

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Nearly two weeks ago, Georgia launched a security sweep in a controversial border area Russia says has long been a hideout for armed Chechen separatists. The move has failed to mollify Moscow, which continues to accuse its southern neighbor of sponsoring alleged terrorist groups. While the Georgian government is pronouncing the crackdown a success, the Kremlin says the operation is little more than a sham. RFE/RL looks at the situation in Pankisi Gorge, where so many competing interests seem to be at stake.

Prague, 5 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Since the beginning of the second war in Chechnya in October 1999, Moscow and Tbilisi have been at odds over the alleged presence of armed Chechen separatists in the Pankisi Gorge, a tiny area of Georgia bordering Russia's breakaway republic.

For months, the spat between the two neighbors was limited to the exchange of diplomatic notes detailing Russian grievances and Georgian protests.

Then, in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States and the subsequent campaign against Afghanistan, Russia became more bold and carried out sporadic nighttime bombing raids on Pankisi and its surroundings.

The efficiency of these random attacks, which are purportedly meant to destroy alleged Chechen training camps, has come under question. Analysts believe the raids are actually primarily aimed at exerting pressure on Georgia, which has had thorny relations with Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Nearly two weeks ago (23 August), the row between Moscow and Tbilisi took a tragic twist when bomber jets apparently belonging to Russia's air forces shelled a village near the Pankisi Gorge, killing one resident and wounding seven others. It was the fist border raid to claim a life.

Moscow denied any wrongdoing and went as far as suggesting that Georgian air forces should be blamed for the incident. But Russian military officials in the meantime have continued to insist they have the right to strike "terrorists" -- as they commonly refer to Chechen separatists -- wherever they are. They defend their stance by pointing to the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan to rout members of the former ruling Taliban militia and Al-Qaeda.

Two days after the bloody bombing, the Georgian government ordered up to 1,000 Interior Ministry troops, police officers, and special forces to move into Pankisi with the stated objective of reasserting its control over the area.

In addition to some 8,000 local ethnic Chechens known as Kists, Pankisi is currently home to an estimated 4,000 refugees who have fled the combat zone on the northern side of the border.

In the early 1990s, the remote region had become a gray area, attracting a wide range of smuggling activities. From then on -- particularly after the first Chechen war, which saw a rise in illegal business -- Pankisi is said to have been living under the thumb of criminal gangs reportedly operating in collusion with corrupt Georgian officials.

Authorities in Tbilisi say the Pankisi crackdown has so far resulted in the arrest of half a dozen criminals and at least one foreigner with suspected terrorist ties. The foreigner -- together with a Japanese national apprehended last month while attempting to enter Georgia from Chechnya -- marks the second alleged "terrorist" detained in less than a month.

On 2 September, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze offered assurances that the situation in Pankisi was under the control of government forces. Shevardnadze continues to oppose Russia's insistence that it join the security operations in the area.

Georgian law enforcement agencies, which have reportedly set up checkpoints in all Pankisi settlements, have started registering refugees living in the area and issuing new identity cards. They have also announced plans to collect all weapons smuggled into the area.

Yet, like a previous security crackdown in January, the operation has not mollified Moscow, which continues to accuse Georgia of collusion with Chechen separatists.

Shevardnadze, whom Moscow holds personally responsible for allegedly allowing Chechen fighters into Georgia, has reacted to these accusations with seemingly contradictory statements.

After denying the Russian claims for months, the Georgian leader last year admitted to the presence of a limited number of separatists -- men under the command of Chechen field commander Ruslan Gelaev -- using Pankisi as a base.

But soon after the United States announced a $64 million plan to help Tbilisi fight alleged Pankisi-based Al-Qaeda militants, Shevardnadze accused the Russian military of purposely driving larger and larger numbers of Chechen fighters across the porous Chechen-Georgian border.

These confusing remarks were a godsend for Moscow, which cited them as proof that Georgia was in fact harboring terrorists. Addressing a meeting of military commanders in the Siberian city of Chita, Russian President Vladimir Putin last week (28 August) once again criticized what he described Shevardnadze's contradictory statements. "It is not the situation on the [Russian-Georgian] border in itself that causes alarm, but rather our relations with our partners in Georgia and the lack of understanding between us. If you remember -- we've all seen it on television -- just a short while ago, they were saying there were no terrorists in Georgia. They've said that on several occasions and with the utmost confidence. But then, with no less confidence, they also said, 'Yes, we have to admit that there are terrorists [in Georgia].'"

Meeting with foreign journalists on 31 August, Shevardnadze said that, since the beginning of the Pankisi operation, the area had been cleared of the main Chechen combat groups that had been driven there by Russia. The Georgian president added that a few isolated fighters and "several Arab nationals" had probably remained behind.

Hinting for the first time at a tentative time frame for the police operation, Shevardnadze also said Pankisi would be cleansed of all criminals "within the next two or three months."

Moscow, however, remains highly skeptical of the Pankisi sweep, saying it is just a front aimed at persuading the international community that Tbilisi is determined to curb so-called "terrorism." To sustain their claims, Russian officials point to the fact that two days before troops moved into Pankisi, Shevardnadze advised the male Chechen population in the area to leave.

Mamuka Areshidze is a former Georgian parliament deputy who now serves as a government adviser. He tells RFE/RL that, in his view, Shevardnadze was right in giving Pankisi residents advance warning about the operation: "Firstly, this was done with the purpose of spilling as little blood as possible and encountering as little resistance as possible. Secondly, this was done to give the local population enough time to build up an opinion [about the operation]. The overwhelming majority of local residents support the decision to move troops into the gorge. This is why there has been no incident between the population and Interior Ministry troops."

Georgia, which is already facing two unresolved separatist conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, has made it clear that it does not want to confront the Chechen separatist leadership. Regional analysts point out that Tbilisi also sees good relations with Chechens as a counterweight to continued Russian influence in its own breakaway republics.

In any case, it appears that tiny Pankisi has become an issue with significant geopolitical weight.

As one Georgian-based Chechen told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, many parties now seem to have an interest in claiming that scores of fighters are hiding in the gorge. Such a claim, he says, "gives the Russians a pretext to accuse Georgia of covering Chechen activities, the Georgians a reason to ask for more financial help from the West, and the United States an opportunity to increase their presence in the Caucasus."

Moscow maintains that Pankisi is home to thousands of Chechen separatists. Tbilisi, in turn, puts the number of fighters deliberately driven into the gorge at between 150 and 800, depending on the intensity of the fighting in Chechnya.

For his part, Georgian expert Areshidze puts the number of Pankisi-based militants in the gorge at around 200. While admitting that some of them have infiltrated Georgia as refugees, he seems to question their links with the Chechen separatist leadership. "There are people there -- they number something like 200 or 220 -- who pose as Chechen partisans. They have [now] taken to the mountains. These people have fought federal troops in Chechnya and the majority of them are armed. Many of them have come [to Georgia] as refugees, but they nonetheless identify themselves with those combatants who are fighting [Russian] federal troops."

The Chechen separatist leadership has always said that, in addition to fighters driven into Georgia by federal troops, most alleged Pankisi-based militants are in fact wounded combatants who went to the region to receive medical treatment.

Akhmed Zakaev is the deputy prime minister of the Chechen separatist government and President Aslan Maskhadov's special representative. He tells RFE/RL that the Chechen resistance fully approves of the Georgian decision to restore law and order in the border area. "From the very beginning, President Maskhadov has expressed his support for the operation. We are reassured because those [Chechen] refugees who live in the Pankisi Gorge are now under the protection of Georgian law-enforcement agencies and the Russian side is no longer in a position to bomb them and get away with it. This is why we support and subscribe to any move aimed at stabilizing the situation in Georgia in general, and in the [Pankisi] region in particular."

Last month (9 August), the "Kavkaz Center" separatist website quoted the commander of the Georgian border guards, General Valeri Chkheidze, as questioning Russia's claims that upper Pankisi, which is blanketed in heavy snows at least six months a year, serves as a permanent supply route for armed militants fighting in Chechnya. Chkheidze also reportedly said he doubted the presence in Pankisi of a few dozen separatist fighters could possibly be to blame for Russia's failure to assert control over Chechnya.

Echoing Chkheidze's remarks, Zakaev denounced what he described as Moscow's aggressive policy toward Georgia: "Those who have launched the war in Chechnya are just trying to divert the focus to Georgia. As we say, they are trying to find a 'fall guy' in an attempt to explain why [Russians] are unable to find a way out [of the war in Chechnya]. These people have initiated a blitzkrieg, which they have named an 'antiterrorist operation.' But their actions have proven unjustified and, therefore, they are trying to divert the focus at all costs and drag Georgia down into that dirty, adventurous war."

The U.S., which has been training Georgian security forces in antiterrorist fighting for the past three months, have welcomed the Pankisi crackdown and urged Russia to show restraint in dealing with its southern neighbor over the Chechen issue.

Some Russian and Western European media, however, speculate that Russia might attempt to secure Washington's approval on a military operation in Pankisi in return for its own go-ahead for a possible U.S. strike against Iraq.

Yet, both Areshidze and Zakaev doubt the U.S. would agree to such a deal, especially if Georgia succeeds in proving that it has reasserted control over Pankisi.