Georgian police have launched a campaign officially aimed at restoring order in the remote Pankisi Gorge border area, some 150 kilometers northeast of the capital, Tbilisi. This mountainous region, located south of Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya, has for years harbored criminal gangs specializing in drug smuggling and human trafficking. It is also a source of friction between Georgia and neighboring Russia, which claims Chechen separatists are using it as a base for military operations. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports on the situation in the area and looks at possible motives behind Georgia's sudden decision to tackle the Pankisi Gorge problem.
Prague, 23 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian authorities on 15 January launched a special police operation they say is aimed at reasserting their authority in a troubled area bordering Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya.
The Pankisi Gorge crackdown is generally seen as having critical implications for Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, whose prestige has been challenged by the persistent lawlessness that has prevailed in the northeastern border region over the past few years.
The operation began when Georgian Interior Ministry troops based in the region were ordered to move checkpoints farther into the gorge and block all approaches to the mountainous area from the rest of Georgia.
The operation so far has secured the arrest of four alleged criminals wanted by the Georgian authorities. Although Shevardnadze claims police have already established control over the region, reports from the area suggest the situation remains tense.
The decision to intervene in the Pankisi Gorge followed a series of protests organized by Georgia's Union of Veterans of the Afghan War, who had threatened to restore law and order in the region themselves if the government failed to do so. In particular, the protesters were demanding the release of a Georgian Orthodox monk and an ethnic Azerbaijani abducted in the region in late 2001 by unknown assailants.
Analysts generally describe the Pankisi Gorge -- which has become synonymous with chaos and anarchy -- as a potential time bomb for the Georgian leadership.
Part of the Akhmeta administrative district in Georgia's Kakhetia province, the Pankisi Gorge is home to an estimated 9,000 ethnic Chechens known as Kists. Since Russia first moved to quell Chechnya's separatist movement seven years ago, more than 6,000 refugees -- mostly women and children -- have found shelter in Pankisi, adding to the region's economic woes.
With war raging just across the border, the Pankisi Gorge has become a kind of gray zone, attracting a range of illegal businesses ranging from human trafficking to drug and arms smuggling.
Two years ago, the International Committee of the Red Cross suspended its work aiding Chechen refugees in the area after unknown assailants abducted two of its workers. Since then, criminal gangs operating in the region have kidnapped dozens of other aid workers, officials, and businessmen, including several foreigners.
Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's envoy in Tbilisi, Khizri Aldamov, told RFE/RL that both refugees and local Kists have for months been asking Georgian authorities to restore order in the region, and that they fully support the ongoing police operation.
"The population of the Gorge approves of what is going on at the moment. [But] we will not be reassured until the 40 or 45 people wanted by Georgia's law-enforcement agencies are caught. We will carry the operation to its end," Aldamov said. "Residents of the gorge are on the side of law-enforcement agencies. The entire population is ready to clean the region of all these criminals."
Aldamov dismissed Georgia's claims that it has been unable to exert control over the region, saying the area has always been accessible to law-enforcement agencies. But some experts say this is not necessarily true.
Mamuka Areshidze is a former member of the Georgian parliament and now serves as a regional analyst for the legislature. He said the Pankisi Gorge is dominated by a volatile mixture of criminal, political and military interests.
"In the mid-1990s, with the war going on in neighboring Chechnya, Pankisi became a region where one could easily buy and sell weapons, or devote oneself to all kinds of criminal activities. That happens everywhere [under such circumstances]. That was notably the case in Bosnia [during] the Balkans [war]. The same sort of things happened here, but on a smaller scale. It was, of course, a spontaneous phenomenon," Areshidze said. "Then some members of Georgia's law-enforcement and other official agencies realized that they could make a lot of money there. They teamed up with other people to expand this [gray area] and artificially maintain a criminal environment there. Among the people involved in these murky businesses are Georgians, Chechens, Kists, Russians, Westerners, Arabs, and all kind of people who are making a lot of money."
Maskhadov's envoy Aldamov agreed that the crime situation in the Pankisi Gorge is being artificially maintained. He lay particular blame on Russia for causing trouble in the area with the aim of undermining Shevardnadze's authority in the region.
"Those criminals are sent [to the Pankisi Gorge] on purpose. In addition, the Russian secret services are actively working there, sending and bribing Chechens, Kists and Georgians to sow confusion [in the region]," Aldamov said.
Analysts also doubt whether Georgian authorities are capable of restoring order in the area, or if they are even genuinely interested in doing so.
Jaba Devdariani is the founding director of the United Nations Association of Georgia, a Tbilisi-based non-governmental organization that promotes civil participation in public policy-making. He said the police crackdown was designed partly to address international and domestic concerns about lawlessness in the Pankisi area, and partly as a public relations operation aimed at restoring the prestige of Georgia's law-enforcement agencies.
"One additional point could be that the newly appointed ministers of internal affairs and state security wanted to improve a little bit the image of their agencies. Both ministries came under severe criticism in October and November [of 2001] when the government [was dismissed] after [a series of] public protests in Tbilisi. The basic criticisms [being leveled at] these agencies were that, if they were not taking a direct part in the crimes that were emanating from the Pankisi Gorge, they were at least turning a blind eye to that region," Devdariani said.
Two months ago, on 22 November, Koba Narchemashvili and Valeri Khaburzania were appointed to take over the Interior and State Security ministries, replacing Kakha Targamadze and Vakhtang Kutateladze. Both Targamadze and Kutateladze were widely seen as symbols of an unpopular government plagued by corruption. Opinion polls released shortly before Shevardnadze dismissed his entire cabinet on 1 November showed that up to 85 percent of Georgians mistrusted the country's law-enforcement agencies.
Regional analyst Areshidze said the belated Pankisi Gorge crackdown may have broader goals than simply restoring the image of the interior and state security ministries: "The ongoing struggle is not the face-off between Pankisi-based criminal elements and law-enforcement agencies. It's in Tbilisi that the [real] struggle is going on -- between those people who are trying to exploit the situation in the Pankisi area for their own political, financial, and criminal profit, and those people who are trying to change things. True, the ongoing operation has a 'show-off' element to it, but it was also launched because some people are trying to change things."
Areshidze believes pressure from neighboring Russia -- whose relations with Georgia have deteriorated over the past few years -- also played a role in the decision to launch the Pankisi Gorge operation.
Moscow has regularly accused Georgian authorities of condoning the activities of armed Chechen separatists it says are using the Pankisi area as a base of operations to harass Russian troops. Georgian officials repeatedly denied Russia's claims until September, when Shevardnadze for the first time admitted the possibility that Chechen fighters might be living in Pankisi.
On 27 November, Russian military aircraft reportedly bombed a Georgian village in Pankisi in an apparent attempt to kill Chechen guerrillas hiding in the area. Moscow has denied any wrongdoing, but Georgian officials have described the attack as a "provocation."
Russia later dispatched fresh troops along its border with Georgia, saying the situation in the Pankisi area was posing a security threat. The move was generally interpreted as an attempt to force Tbilisi into a more compliant posture on the issue of Chechen separatists.
One possible aim of the police crackdown may be to prevent Russia's direct military involvement in the region. Georgia's interior and state security ministers visited Moscow in mid-January for confidential talks with their Russian counterparts. Although it is believed the Pankisi crackdown was high on their agenda, it appears clear that, to date, Chechen separatists are not being targeted by the operation.
Although regional experts generally rule out the possibility of Russian troops crossing the border to hunt down separatists, they say Moscow's military power nonetheless represents a potential threat to the Georgian leadership.
As Areshidze put it: "Should Russian police forces or army troops find themselves involved in full-scale military operations in the region, that would be the death knell of Georgia's current regime."