Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 186

Both Russian and Abkhazian authorities have alleged that a joint force of Chechen rebel fighters and Georgian guerrillas recently attempted to invade the self-styled republic of Abkhazia. According to Russian media reports, the Chechen raiders were headed by well-known field commander Ruslan Gelaev, who allegedly planned to cross Abkhazia and break out onto Russian territory at Sochi or in Karachaevo-Cherkessia. On October 8, Dato Shengelia, head of the Georgian guerrilla group Lesnye Bratya (Wood Brothers), claimed that some 500 Chechen and Kabardins were involved in the raid and that another 650 fighters, mainly Kabardins, were moving into Abkhazian territory. Shengelia said his pro-Georgian forces, made up largely of “fighters from the North Caucasus,” were seeking to punish the Abkhazians “for their betrayal and active cooperation with Russia” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 10; AFP, October 9; Russian agencies, October 6-8).

The reports alleging the presence of Chechen fighters in Abkhazia have not been confirmed, and it is quite possible they are part of a disinformation campaign by the Russian special services aimed at discrediting the Chechen rebels. If they are true, however, they are nothing short of sensational. During the 1992-1993 war in Abkhazia, various North Caucasian ethnic groups, including Chechens, fought on the side of the Abkhazians against the Georgians. The Confederation of the Caucasus Peoples–the group headed by Musa Shanibov, a Kabardin from Nalchik, which aimed at uniting the various ethnic groups of the North Caucasus into a confederative state structure–recruited volunteers to help the Abkhazians. Then Chechen President Djohar Dudaev, who was trying to solve the problem of Abkhazia at the “state” level, also wanted to head a North Caucasus confederation and thus did not miss an opportunity to send fighters to Abkhazia. Shamil Basaev, who is today well known as a Chechen rebel field commander, commanded volunteers from the North Caucasus during the 1992-1993 war in Abkhazia.

If the Chechen rebels have now truly united with Georgian guerrillas against their former Abkhazian ally, this means that professional Chechen mercenaries are present in practically all of the world’s conflict zones. During 1996-1999, the period of Chechnya’s de facto independence, the republic’s self-styled leaders offered its armed forces as peacekeepers for the world’s hot spots, arguing that they were highly professional soldiers with ample combat experience. According to the New York Times, Chechens have been fighting in Afghanistan on the side of the Northern Alliance against the ruling Taliban government (New York Times, October 10).