Kidnapping and Extortion: Russia’s Modus Operandi in Georgia

by Giorgi Kvelashvili

Georgians were recently shocked when they learned of more kidnappings of ethnic Georgians, this time from the village of Tirdznisi near the Russian-occupied Tskhinvali region.

Kidnapping has been a usual Russian practice ever since Russia invaded Georgia in August 2008 and seized nearly 20 percent of its territory. But the latest abductions are truly unprecedented since they involve four Georgian schoolboys. Giorgi Romelashvili and Aleko Sabadze are 14 years of age while Victor Buchukuri and Levan khmiadashvili are 16 and 17, respectively. All of the boys attend high school in Tirdznisi, which is under Georgian control and well beyond the zone of Russian occupation.

Outrage, caused by the kidnapping, quickly spread throughout Georgia, involving the government, NGOs and the general public. As Georgia’s Minister of Education Nika Gvaramia told Rustavi-2 TV late on November 5, the government of Georgia has already alerted the international community through diplomatic channels and requested the intervention of the European Union’s Monitoring Mission (EUMM) in Georgia and other “influential international organizations” since “we have limited tools of our own to free the kidnapped boys.”

The schoolboys are currently in the town of Tskhinvali and the government-controlled Russian media is silent about the fact, apparently waiting for “appropriate instructions” from the authorities on how to convey the story to the Russian public. A miniscule amount of information put on its website by the Russian news agency Regnum, itself close to the Kremlin, stated that the four Georgians were arrested on charges of “violating the state border and illegally possessing and carrying weapons and explosives,” adding that the Georgians detained late on November 4 had four hand grenades and explosives.”

Earlier, in late October, Georgia had witnessed two separate incidents of kidnapping from Georgian villages adjacent to the Russian zone of occupation in Tskhivali. The first one took place on October 26 and involved sixteen Georgians, and the second one, the October 28 incident, involved five residents of Georgia’s Kareli district.

Five Georgians were freed within hours of their abduction while the freeing of the 16 Georgian citizens became a saga of international proportions, involving tedious negotiations by representatives of foreign governments and international organizations, the most instrumental of which was the EUMM in Georgia.

In both cases, armed Russian soldiers, or their “South Ossetian” proxies entered Georgian-controlled territory and arrested residents engaged in their traditional activities of felling trees or herding. In yet another incident on November 1st, this time in Georgia’s north-western Abkhazia region, the Russian forces kidnapped two Georgian citizens who tried to enter the neighboring town of Zugdidi to sell hazelnut. The fates of the two men, whose produce had been extorted, still remains a mystery.

Even more outrageous was the case with Ruzgen Khasaia, a Georgian citizen living in Abkhazia, whose house was burnt down on November 4th by Russian troops after the man refused to give up his harvest of hazelnut. Trespassing of the “Georgian-Abkhaz border” was the official accusation against Khasaia and the harvest was requested “as a fine for illegal activity.” Georgia’s Rustavi- 2 TV channel reported that Khasaia’s neighbors were forcibly taken to watch the burning of his house, supposedly, “to prevent disobedience in the future.”

Analysts believe that Russia pursues several objectives through these and other cases of kidnapping and extortion, as savage and unacceptable they may seem to the international community. It is quite possible that Moscow is trying to discredit President Saakashvili’s government by showing its inability to provide security to Georgian citizens living in territories adjacent to the zones of Russian occupation in Tskhinvali and Abkhazia.

Russia might also want to force the Georgian citizens living there to abandon their villages, which could make room for an expansion of the zone of Russian occupation. When it comes to Georgian nationals living in Abkhazia, Moscow allegedly would like to see their contact with the rest of Georgia remain as limited as possible on the one hand and their disobedience to Russian directives as strictly punishable on the other.

Besides, the Kremlin is apparently trying to test the international reaction to its current actions vis-à-vis Georgia and the Georgian government should double its efforts to alert the world community about the latest incidents.

Without the decisive intervention of the United States and other major actors, it is hardly imaginable that Russia would observe its commitments under the 2008 ceasefire agreement and allow the European Union’s Monitoring Mission free and unimpeded access to occupied Georgian territories.

Media reports on November 12-14 that Georgia will host ambassadors from all 27 EU member states appear promising. The ambassadors will be met by President Saakashvili and members of his government. The foreign diplomats also plan to visit villages where displaced persons were housed in the aftermath of the Russia invasion.