Georgia’s Internal Affairs and State Security Ministries are conducting a carefully calibrated operation to restore order in the Pankisi Gorge, the scene in the last two years of rampant criminal activities that ultimately spilled over into the rest of Georgia. The armed criminal groups, mostly local Kist Chechens and Chechen refugees from Russia, not only terrorized those two communities, but had scared Georgia’s law enforcement authorities away from Pankisi. Moscow–and President Vladimir Putin personally–exploited the situation in hopes of undermining the Tbilisi government and retaining the Russian military bases in Georgia. Charging that Chechen insurgents had established base camps in Pankisi, Russia sought a license to use its own troops, from Russian bases within Georgia, for “restoring order” in Pankisi.
With the Georgian operation now in full swing, Foreign Affairs Minister Irakli Menagharishvili pointed to its two-fold significance: first, as an internal problem, involving an effort by the state to restore law and order in one of its difficult areas; and, second, as a means to establish the truth on the international level and rebut the Russian accusations of collusion with “terrorism.”
The government was also faced with mounting internal political pressure to clean up Pankisi, perceived in the rest of Georgia as a haven for drug deals and kidnappers. The Kakheti Region and its subunit, the Akhmeta district–within which Pankisi is located–were most directly affected by crime and ordinary violence emanating from Pankisi. Last month, criminals abducted to the gorge for ransom a local Orthodox monk, Father Basil. In an already inflamed atmosphere, this ordinary crime came close to igniting armed clashes which could have acquired ethnic or religious overtones. It is a measure of the volatility of the situation that Tbilisi authorities suspected a deliberate external attempt to spark such clashes through that kidnapping.
In the second week of January, Georgian veterans of the Soviet-Afghan and Georgian-Abkhaz conflicts set up round-the-clock pickets at the entrance to the Pankisi Gorge and outside the seats of authority in Akhmeta and Kakheti, calling for the use of force to clean up Pankisi, and threatening to take action themselves unless Tbilisi acted. The local authorities endorsed the call and threatened to resign in sympathy with the protesters. By that time, the government in Tbilisi had already made up its mind to introduce police and interior troops into the gorge.
President Eduard Shevardnadze, almost always loath to use military force, ultimately authorized a carefully calibrated security operation in the mainly Chechen-populated Pankisi. Last year, he and the government were preoccupied not only with restoring order, but also with avoiding the bludgeon method seen on the Russian side of the border. Shevardnadze and other Georgian officials had all along emphasized that the use of Russian methods in Pankisi could result in “another Chechnya,” this time on Georgian soil. The president had visited with Pankisi Kists and Chechens, eliciting expressions of loyalty from the former as citizens and appreciation from the latter as refugees receiving relief. The visit, however, could not and did not curb the organized crime there and its spillover.
The Internal Affairs and State Security ministers, Koba Narchemashvili and Valeri Khaburdzania, new to their posts, are eager not only to earn their spurs, but also to look markedly different from their predecessors Kakha Targamadze and Vahtang Kutateladze. The public had come to see these two as abetting organized crime in general, including that in Pankisi. They were dismissed last November under pressure from parliament and the public. Within weeks of the two new appointments, the authorities managed to free two Spanish businessmen who had been abducted to Pankisi a year earlier and were the most high-profile hostages there. Responding to conjecture in both Georgia and Spain that ransom had been paid, the authorities in Tbilisi ruled out such payment in this or the remaining kidnap cases.
Pankisi is home to an estimated 10,000 local Kist Chechens and some 7,000 Chechen refugees from Russian territory and war. Also in the gorge are Georgian-populated villages and Ossetian-populated ones. Due to the ethnic and religious mix, the entrenched clan system, the leakage of arms from the Russian-Chechen war, and the potential for external political manipulation of ordinary criminal activities, the problems in Pankisi require especially careful treatment by Tbilisi.
On January 15, Georgian internal affairs troops and state security personnel began moving their checkpoints and patrols from the entrance to the gorge into its interior, reaching Pankisi’s main village, Duisi, some fifteen kilometers inside the gorge. Now, the “first stage” of the action has been completed, with the authorities essentially in control of the roads and commanding hills and some villages. There, village headmen and elders’ councils have been restored to authority. Four criminal gang leaders have been arrested, in actions that sparked only sporadic shooting incidents.
As the operation moves into its second stage, Shevardnadze told the country on radio yesterday that “we cannot say that all problems have been resolved or that the tensions have been removed. But the [security] agencies will do their best to avert any developments that would cause joy among our country’s ill-wishers and their agents.”
Two local Kist Chechens, wounded while assisting the security forces, have been declared heroes and awarded with medals by Shevardnadze, and their families with financial assistance by the state. According to the president and other officials, most Kists and Chechen refugees welcome the troops’ appearance because it frees them as well from intimidation and extortion by the armed criminal groups. Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov’s informal representative in Tbilisi, Khizri Aldamov–himself a Pankisi Kist–not only supports the operation, but calls for the arrest of all criminals in the gorge.
In every statement he makes on the subject, Shevardnadze underscores the loyal and peaceful behavior of most Pankisi residents and their common interest with the Georgian authorities in getting rid of criminals in their communities. This approach contrasts markedly with the Kremlin’s, which has virtually branded the Chechens as inherently criminal or terrorist, failing to isolate those who may fit that description, and thereby fueling the conflagration.
In parallel with this operation, Tbilisi seeks to initiate the voluntary repatriation of Chechen refugees from Pankisi. Georgia is actively seeking Russia’s consent to such repatriation and has requested Moscow to appoint a government commission to that end. Parliament Chairwoman Nino Burjanadze has, alongside Shevardnadze, taken the lead in these demarches. The goal is to repatriate the refugees not to the dreaded refugee centers in the North Caucasus, but to their home localities in Chechnya. The prerequisites are free consent, and the cessation of Russian operations that target innocent civilians in those localities. This consideration strengthens Georgia’s interest in an end to the war in Chechnya, so as to remove the danger of its spillover into Georgia (Rustavi-2 Television, January 26; Tbilisi Radio, January 21, 28; Prime News, January 16-28; Institute for War and Peace Reporting (London), no. 113, January 25; see the Monitor, November 29-30, December 7, 2001).
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