On December 5, as has been widely reported, the Russian Federation introduced a visa requirement for citizens of Georgia seeking to enter Russia. This development immediately complicated the lives of an estimated 650,000 Georgians living in Russia, and prevented large numbers of Georgian truckdrivers from bringing loads of perishable foodstuffs into Russia. The new visa requirement, it emerged, was not to be applied to citizens in two secession-prone areas of Georgia: Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This episode was but one of a number of signs of escalating tensions between Russia and Georgia. On December 2, to take one example, Russian gas and electricity supplies for the capital of Tbilisi were temporarily cut off, plunging the city of 1.2 million into several hours of darkness and depriving it of heat (AP, December 2). Five days later, on December 7, it was announced that the Georgian parliament was planning to debate the subject of Georgia’s withdrawing from the Commonwealth of Independent States (Lenta.ru, December 7).
During a lengthy press conference held in Moscow on December 6, presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky sought to explain the rationale for Russia’s actions on the visa question (Official Kremlin International News Broadcast, December 6). “The main and only reason to introduce the visa regime,” Yastrzhembsky averred, “was our great concern for Chechen separatism and terrorism in some parts of Georgia.” Russia, he noted, has had a longstanding grievance against Georgia over the issue of the porousness of the latter’s northern border: “The flow of arms, medicines and munitions across Georgian territory [into Russia] did not stop… I regret to say that, in the Pankisi Gorge, [and in] Georgia’s Akhmeta District, the local authorities do not control the situation. Training centers of Chechen militants, their storage depots and hospitals are absolutely openly functioning there. In fact, training of militants is conducted there on a daily basis.”
Of the 7,000 refugees from Chechnya living in the Pankisi Gorge and the Akhmeta district of Georgia, Yastrzhembsky underlined, there are, “according to the most conservative count, 1,500-2,000 militants in the Pankisi Gorge.” These Chechen fighters “effectively control some seventeen populated localities.” Training camps for militants are located in these settlements where “mercenaries from Arab countries and Turkey” receive military training. As a result of this situation, Yastrzhembsky warned, what is happening in northeastern Georgia is beginning to resemble what happened earlier in Chechnya itself: “Georgians and Ossetians are being pushed out of that locality. Robberies and thefts and cattle rustling are daily occurrences.” Kidnappings are also increasing–the recent seizure of two Spanish businessmen, for example.
Yastrzhembsky claimed that the legendary Chechen field commander Ruslan (Khamzat) Gelaev “is now on the territory of Pankisi Gorge,” as are other well-known Chechen commanders (for a recent article on Gelaev, see the no. 69, 2000 issue of Novaya gazeta). “It can be said,” Yastrzhembsky summed up, “that for all practical purposes the Pankisi Gorge is beyond the control not only of the local, but also of the central authorities in Georgia, and poses a threat not only to the national interests of Russia but to the national interests of Georgia as well.” Unfortunately, the regimen on the Georgian side of the border is woefully inadequate: “The border is watched only during the daytime. There is no control at all during the night. The number of [Georgian] borderguards is ludicrously small.”
Asked by a French journalist about the group of OSCE observers present on the Georgian-Russian border, Yastrzhembsky responded: “Indeed, there is a group of OSCE observers on the territory of Georgia.” But, he went on, they lack the necessary technical equipment to carry out their mission. For example, they have use of helicopters only “from time to time.” And they are de facto prevented from properly monitoring the Akhmeta District and Pankisi Gorge. “So the OSCE,” he concluded, with a note of irony, “are probably doing all they can. But they miss a lot of things.”
In his press conference, Yastrzhembsky also complained about other Chechen separatist activities tolerated by the Georgian authorities. There is “a representative office of the Republic of Ichkeria [that is, separatist Chechnya] in Tbilisi, and a press center of the Chechen leadership in Tbilisi.” There is also a Chechen “propaganda newspaper” published on the territory of Georgia. Other Russian spokesmen have recently complained that Georgian internet providers have permitted the Chechen separatists to open “seven specialized propaganda sites” on the web (Trud, November 28).
Similar complaints to those of Yastrzhembsky were recently made by Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the FSB [Russian secret police], when he visited Georgia in late November, meeting with his Georgian counterpart and with President Shevardnadze. Patrushev also expressed concern over the existence of Chechen separatist press centers and an official representation of Ichkeria located in Georgia. “He even named the addresses of the apartments where the Chechens working [in those centers] live.” The Georgians, in turn, “expressed concern over the presence in Russia of centers of Abkhaz separatists and a representation of Abkhazia. And they, too, provided the addresses of apartments” (Kommersant daily, November 30).
The aggressive line Yastrzhembsky took mirrored that of other leading Russian officials, including the country’s president. Interfax reported on December 5 that, at the CIS summit meeting held in Minsk on December 1, President Putin offered to do away with the new visa requirement if Georgia agreed to a joint Russian-Georgian military operation to be conducted on Georgian soil against the Chechen separatists. On December 4, President Shevardnadze stated publicly that the Russians “are not hiding that the main reason for introducing the visa regime was Georgia’s decision not to let Russian forces cross Georgian territory” to attack the Chechens. “If we agreed to that,” Shevardnadze warned, “Georgia would become a platform for a major Caucasus war and we would be sucked into a bloody conflict. I will not allow that” (Reuters, December 5).
In an interview with the Russian military newspaper Krasnaya zvezda, published on December 6, Zurab Abashidze, the Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of Georgia to Russia, elaborated on Shevardnadze’s earlier comments. Abashidze several times underlined the absolute centrality of the problem of Abkhaz separatism for the Georgian government. “You know our attitude toward separatism as a phenomenon,” he told the newspaper, “We ourselves have collided with it in Abkhazia.” Though Abashidze did not state so explicitly, it was clear that Russia’s perceived support for Abkhaz and South Ossetian separatism in Georgia serves significantly to weaken Georgia’s backing for Russia’s current military campaign against the Chechen separatists.
Sketching out the background of the border problem in northeastern Georgia, Abashidze noted that when the second Russo-Chechen war broke out in the fall of 1999, “a torrent of [Chechen] refugees flowed to us. We were required to accept a part of them on humanitarian grounds. Basically, these were old men, women and children. Up to 7,000 were settled in the Pankisi Gorge, where the ethnic Chechen-Kists live.” Subsequently the Russian-Georgian border was sealed: “But those people remained with us. Now there comes diverse information from the Pankisi Gorge. [Georgian] law enforcement organs are conducting appropriate work with the local population. Both the central and the local authorities are interested that the situation there not become more complicated. But it can go out of control if unconsidered coercive actions are undertaken.”
“In order not to blow up the situation in Georgia,” Abashidze cautioned, “one should not create uncontrollable processes. Up till now in Moscow, they recall with a certain bitterness that the Georgian leadership was required to decline the request of the Russian side that its forces, based in Georgia, should enter Chechnya from our territory and join the counterterrorist operation. Even today, we are convinced that if that had happened, there would have begun massive military actions within Georgia.”
Abashidze noted: “It is impossible not to take into consideration the role of the Kists. It is no secret that they sympathize with their [Chechen] brethren. All of these circumstances could have created a new hotbed of tension on our territory. Upon reflection, the Georgian leadership adopted a very complex but balanced decision.”
As both President Shevardnadze and Ambassador Abashidze were at pains to emphasize, the situation on the Russian-Georgian border was a potentially incendiary one for Georgia. The joint military operation insistently proposed by President Putin and by Russian generals could serve literally to “blow up” Georgia. Nevertheless, to help bring some order to northeastern Georgia, and, perhaps, partially to mollify his powerful neighbors to the north, Shevardnadze declared emergency rule throughout eastern Georgia late on the evening of December 5 (Strana.ru, December 6).