The U.S. charge d’affaires in Georgia, Philip Remler, has said that “several dozen” Taliban and al-Qaida fighters who fled from Afghanistan are now hiding in the Caucasus, some of them in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge. Those fighters, he claims, are in contact with warlord Khattab in Chechnya, who in turn has had connections with Osama bin Laden. Remler went on to say that the Pankisi Gorge has now become a haven for both international terrorists and “the most criminalized part of Georgia, thus posing a threat to Georgia itself.” Remler, currently heading the U.S. diplomatic mission in Tbilisi, made these statements in an interview with the Georgian newspaper Achali Versiya. The U.S. embassy subsequently confirmed the accuracy of the Georgian version.
In the same interview and in an accompanying statement, Remler offered U.S. assistance to Georgia in coping with the Pankisi Gorge problem. He mentioned specifically a U.S. decision to help Georgia’s Defense Ministry create antiterrorist troops, and seemed to leave open the possibility of other forms of assistance as well. Georgia’s Internal Affairs and State Security ministries lost no time expressing agreement with Remler’s remarks. President Eduard Shevardnadze’s chief spokesman, Kakha Imnadze, said that Tbilisi fully agrees with Remler’s assessment. Imnadze’s wording implied a blanket support for U.S. views on the situation in Georgia and on problems between Russia and Georgia.
The U.S. statement in fact opens the prospect of taking the explosive Pankisi problem out of the bilateral Russia-Georgia context, creating instead the basis for an American role in dealing with the problem. This seems to be the prevailing interpretation not only in Tbilisi but also in Moscow (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 13; Interfax, February 15). Hardly anyone regards Remler’s statements as vindicating the old Russian charges that Georgia tolerates hundreds or even thousands of Chechen and “international terrorists” in Pankisi. Remler referred to a most recent development, involving dozens. He also underscored the national security implications of ordinary crime–by definition an internal problem of Georgia, and for the first time publicly held out the prospect of U.S. assistance.
Such assistance could take several forms, consistent with the stated U.S. policy of targeting terrorist havens in foreign countries whose governments cannot cope with the task. Georgia, unlike some other countries, would be an eager recipient of such assistance. If quickly forthcoming, it would frustrate Moscow’s intentions to use the situation in Pankisi as a pretext for Russian military intervention in Georgia. The real stake is not Pankisi, but Georgia itself and its Western orientation.
Timing is vital with the approach of spring weather. Russian military warnings to Georgia have intensified in recent weeks. In his February 3 speech at the Munich international conference on security policy, and again a week later, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov misrepresented Georgia as a haven of international terrorism. Last week, General Anatoly Kvashnin, chief of the General Staff of Russia’s armed forces, offered to send troops to Georgia, if the latter “requested” it, in order to suppress “international terrorism” in Pankisi. In recent days, Russian intelligence agencies inspired a barrage of media stories about “international terrorists”–including even bin Laden–allegedly hiding in Pankisi and elsewhere in Georgia.
In Paris, Foreign Affairs Minister Igor Ivanov used a joint news conference with his French counterpart Hubert Vedrine to accuse Georgia. As for bin Laden, Ivanov “does not rule out that he might be hiding in Pankisi.” After the recent Russian media reports circulated, Ivanov asked rhetorically, “who says he can’t be there?” (Interfax, June 15). Vedrine, who currently reserves for the United States all his strictures, let Igor Ivanov’s contentions pass unchallenged. These signals from Moscow underscore the urgency of bona-fide antiterrorist and anticrime assistance to Georgia from the United States and international organizations (Achali Versiya, February 11; Dilis Gazeti, February 13; Prime-News, Rustavi-2 Television, Tbilisi Radio, Interfax, February 14-17; see the Monitor, December 7, 2001, January 30, February 6).
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