Over the past week, the Russian leadership visibly ratcheted up the pressure on the Republic of Georgia over the Chechen question, and it even appeared, briefly, as if Georgia might be prepared to acquiesce to the conducting of joint Russian-Georgian patrols in the mountainous Pankisi Gorge region, inhabited by an estimated 7,000 Chechen refugees-most of them women, the elderly, and children–and by the Kist, an ethnic group of Georgia with close historic ties to the Chechens. The prospect of Russian forces moving into the Gorge raised the specter that the current Russian-Chechen conflict could, with unpredictable consequences, spill over into mountain Georgia, with well-rested Chechen forces led by major field commander Ruslan (Khamzat) Gelaev–widely reported to be living somewhere in the Gorge–and elements among the Kist taking on the Russian “invaders.”
On May 20, during an interview with ORT television, presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky also mentioned the existence of a videotape made in the late winter of 2001 by legendary Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev which was intercepted en route to Ruslan Gelaev in Georgia. In the tape, Basaev reportedly confirms the presence of Gelaev and of other Chechen field commanders in the Pankisi Gorge (Strana.ru, May 21). The following day, May 21, Yastrzhembsky passed along copies of the video to a number of Russian newspapers and online news services, along with a full transcript of what Basaev had said (Gazeta.ru, May 22). Questions have been raised concerning the authenticity of this videotape; some commentators believe that it might be a compilation of several earlier statements by Basaev, with some words cut out and others added. President Eduard Shevardnadze’s press secretary, Kakha Imnadze, for his part, commented: “One comes across quite a few such video cassettes…. The Russian side has made similar statements in the past, but they were later refuted by Georgia and Russia itself” (Georgian Television, May 22, in Ichkeria.org, May 23).
One intention behind Yastrzhembsky’s action was apparently to put heavy pressure on Georgia to acknowledge the presence of armed rebels in the Gorge region. On May 22, it was reported by the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti that Georgian Interior Minister Kakha Tarmagadze, who was in Moscow and had just met with Vladimir Rushailo, secretary of the Russian Security Council, had affirmed that Georgian law enforcement agencies would “take measures in order to arrest” field commander Gelaev and possibly extradite him to Russia if reports concerning his presence in Georgia were confirmed. The following day, May 23, Tagamadze and representatives of the collegium of the Georgian Interior Ministry, met with Russian Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov and representatives of the Russian MVD collegium. The two collegiums agreed to “check and recheck information and disinformation” concerning the presence of Chechen separatist fighters in the Gorge region. Tagamadze also confirmed “that if Ruslan Gelaev and his people are discovered, they will be arrested and handed over to the Russian side.” Moreover, and this represented a political bombshell, Tagamadze “did not exclude the possibility of a joint operation with Russia in the Pankisskii Gorge” (Izvestia, May 24).
Tagamadze’s holding out the prospect of joint military and police operations against the Chechens on Georgian soil understandably raised hackles in Georgia. Upon his return to Tbilisi, the interior minister hastily retracted the suggestion in a statement broadcast over Georgia’s independent Rustavi television (AP, 25 May).
On May 25, the Russian leadership struck again. Citing a source in the “Russian power structures,” the official news agency RIA Novosti reported that field commander Shamil Basaev “has arrived in Georgia where he intends to meet with representatives of the Georgian special services in the village of Lekani, near Borzhomi.” Georgian Interior Minister Targamadze quickly dismissed this report as “delirium.” RIA Novosti’s report, it should be noted, was issued only several hours after the outbreak of a serious rebellion in the ranks of the Georgian National Guard (Lenta.ru, Gazeta.ru, 25 May).