Publication: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 3

By Igor Rotar


From March 1 full visa requirements came into force between Russia and Georgia. On the same day, Moscow and Tbilisi signed a protocol establishing a number of special concessions to the visa policy. It was agreed that Russian soldiers serving in Georgia and members of their family would be able to take advantage of a simplified procedure for obtaining Georgian visas: They would be issued with multiple entry visas on the strength of a list submitted to the Georgian foreign ministry by the command of the Russian military task force in the Caucasus. In addition, Moscow and Tbilisi agreed to extend the visa-free policy, currently in place on the Abkhazian and South Ossetian sections of the Russia-Georgia border, to cover the Verkhny Lars-Kazbegi checkpoint. This will affect residents in the border areas of North Ossetia and the Kazbegi district of Georgia. There are about 30,000 inhabitants in the Kazbegi district, all of whom are Georgian citizens, naturally, but most of them only live here in summer, spending the winter in North Ossetia, where they have homes and allotments.

However, these concessions are all rather negligible, and do not affect the majority of citizens of either Russia or Georgia. The Prism correspondent, who was in Tbilisi just before full visa requirements were introduced, heard many Georgians say that they were now very unlikely to travel to Russia. My interlocutors voiced the opinion that it is not in the Georgians’ nature to stand in a long line for a visa at the Russian Consulate. While the first port of call for Georgians traveling on business or looking for work used to be Russia, they are now more likely to go to Turkey, where they can obtain a visa on the border for a token fee.

It should be noted that prior to this, of the CIS states Russia had visa requirements in place only for Turkmenistan, and this was introduced on Ashgabat’s initiative. This time, visa requirements were introduced on the Kremlin’s initiative. It announced that this would allow it to curb infiltration into Russian territory by Chechen fighters via Georgia.

Moscow also cited the situation in Pankiisk Gorge in Georgia. Chechens settled here several centuries ago. According to one version of events, they were brought in by one of the kings of Georgia to defend the border from incursions by Ossetians and Dagestani highlanders. On the whole, Georgians have been amicably disposed towards their new neighbors. When Stalin ordered the deportation of the Chechens, for example, the authorities in Georgia sprang to the defense of the Georgian Chechens, who hastily had their names changed to Georgian ones (by changing the “-ov” suffix to “-shvili”), and remained in the republic. Gradually these Chechens developed into a separate ethnic group–the Kistins–who differ significantly from their countrymen on the other side of the mountains. Having lived alongside the Georgians for several centuries, the local Chechens have to a great extent adopted their customs and way of life. Many of them have Georgian names, for example, and though Kistins are Muslims, almost every home has a wine cellar, as Georgian rural homes do, which would be unthinkable in Chechnya. The Kistin dialect also differs considerably from Chechen.

After the first Russian-Chechen war, many Chechen field commanders started eyeing this area of Georgia–where so many of their fellow countrymen lived–very closely. Salman Raduev asked one of his closest aides, the Kistin Chechen Aleksei Kavtarashvili, to draw up plans to incorporate Pankiisk Gorge into Chechnya. According to the Georgian intelligence services, Shamil Basaev and Khattab have come up with a similar scheme. The plans of the Chechen field commanders enjoy the support of at least some Kistins: In 1998 local residents attempted to proclaim Pankiisk Gorge an “autonomous Islamic territory” and even tried to open a branch of Khattab’s school of subversion.

Since the start of the new war in Chechnya, about 6,000 refugees from Chechnya have moved to Pankiisk Gorge–about the same number as there are Kistins themselves–according to a member of the Duisi rural council Apollon Gaurgshvili. (Duisi is the administrative center of Pankiisk Gorge.) Since then Tbilisi has entirely lost control of the region and is trying to isolate its “little Chechnya.” Concrete slabs have been placed at the border of the gorge, preventing road traffic from passing through at speed, and entry is controlled by reinforced units of Georgian police.

The Kremlin has said on several occasions that there are about a thousand Chechen fighters in the gorge. The Georgian authorities refute this, asserting that they have allowed only women and children into Georgia. However, one has only to spend a little time in Pankiisk Gorge to realize that Moscow’s version is closer to the truth on this occasion: Young men of fighting age account for a significant percentage of the refugees. Moreover, Prism’s correspondent saw for himself that there is an armed post on the road into the Pankiisk “capital,” Duisi, manned jointly by Kistins and “refugees” from Chechnya. The Georgian authorities themselves do not dispute the fact that there are weapons in almost every house in Pankiisk Gorge. It is irrelevant whether the fighters have military bases in the Gorge or whether well-armed refugees from Chechnya are simply living in ordinary homes–the effect is the same in either case.

It is therefore clear that the Kremlin had specific reasons to establish visa requirements with Tbilisi. It is unlikely, however, that Moscow really hopes to use the visa policy to stop terrorists infiltrating Russian territory from Georgia. In reality, Moscow is simply not in a position to close the barely accessible, mountainous stretches of the Chechen-Georgian border, and consequently as soon as the snow melts the fighters will be able to get into Chechnya from Georgia unimpeded. We may assume that Moscow is in fact pursuing altogether different aims. As Georgian Foreign Minister Iraklii Menagarishvili said: “The last few months have shown that the main reason behind the introduction of visa requirements lies in Georgia’s refusal to wage a joint military campaign against Chechnya on Georgian territory.”(1)

Naturally, this would be unacceptable to Tbilisi, as Menagarishvili stressed, because the Georgian public would interpret such an act as occupation of Georgia by Russian troops. However, it is unlikely that Tbilisi would decide to send troops into Pankiisk Gorge independently (without Russia’s help).

There are several reasons for this. The Georgians have already had the grim experience of fighting the Chechens during the war in Abkhazia. It should not be forgotten that Chechens were also involved in the attempt on Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze’s life, which only failed by a lucky chance. The arrested terrorists later admitted that they had undergone training in a school of subversion in Chechnya. Essentially, if Tbilisi were to decide to send troops into Pankiisk Gorge, this region would become to Georgia what Chechnya became for Russia after Russian troops were sent in.

However, the hesitancy of the Georgian authorities cannot be explained by the universally recognized military capabilities of the Chechen fighters alone. It should not be forgotten that during Russia’s first military campaign in Chechnya Eduard Shevardnadze offered the Kremlin unreserved support. At the time the Georgian leader even drew parallels between Chechnya and Abkhazia; Shevardnadze declared that Moscow and Tbilisi would restore the territorial integrity of their countries. However, the Kremlin ended up losing the war, and Tbilisi has had to deal with the victorious Chechens. In off-the-record conversations with Prism, many senior Georgian officials have said that they are far from convinced that Moscow will manage to win this second campaign, so for now they prefer not to cross swords with the separatists.

Pankiisk Gorge – Tbilisi – Moscow

1) Interview given by Georgian foreign minister Iraklii Menagarishvili to Vzglyad (ORT).

Igor Rotar is an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.