The much-discussed Pankisi gorge involving Chechen refugees has reappeared on the agenda of Georgian-Russian relations. On a visit to Georgia on June 8-9, a delegation of the Russian federal migration service led by Boris Yunashin, vainly attempted to persuade an estimated 2,000 Chechen refugees situated in Georgia’s Pankisi valley to return to Russia (Interpress, Rustavi- 2, June 9). The Russian-Georgian interagency task force for organizing a voluntary repatriation of the Pankisi-based Chechen refugees to Russia was created about 18 months ago on the basis of Russian-Georgian agreement. The attempted repatriation of Chechen refugees from neighboring Chechnya regions appears to be Moscow’s policy. The aim of moving refugees and internally displaced people (IDP) to Chechnya is to create public perception of peace in Chechnya. Evidence of this policy is the recent liquidation of tent camps for Chechen refugees in Ingushetia.
Aslanbek Abdurazakov, a Chechen human rights activist, said that most of the refugees would rather immigrate to other countries than to return to Russia, although they continue to negotiate with Russian officials about security and other guarantees (Novie Izvestia June 8). The outcome of the Russian delegation’s visit indicates that Chechen refugees do not put much trust in promises made by Russian officials. Chechen refugees refuse to return despite the Russian government’s offer, which does not limit where they can live within the Russian federation (TV Rustavi-2, June 9).
Recently, a large group of Chechen refugees in Pankisi launched a protest, demanding that Georgian authorities either grant them Georgian citizenship or arrange safe transit to any country except Russia. They fear reprisals from Russian authorities after repatriation, openly stating that concern after meeting with the Russian envoys (TV Rustavi -2, Imedi TV, June 8). That fear is not groundless. Many Chechen women in Pankisi are wives of the Chechen guerrillas and some male refugees either participated in hostilities or have connections with the Chechen rebel groups, sources say.
So far, all attempts by the refugees to find a political asylum in Europe have been unsuccessful. However, some have managed to move to Turkey. Official Russian sources claim that some refugees have returned to Russia. (RIA Novosti, www.Strana.ru June 8). However, Russian organizations, such as the Memorial Society doubt this claim (Novie Izvestia, June 8). “Novie Izvestia” (June 8) cites Asu Dudarkaev, director of the Chechen Republic’s migration service, who admitted “nothing good is waiting for the refugees in their homeland.” According to the United Nations, Russia is the world leader in the number of citizens seeking political asylum abroad, and the Chechens constitute the majority of political emigrants.
The fate of the Chechen refugees as well as the Pankisi gorge problem, which just 18 months ago was a rear base for Chechen rebel groups, is closely entwined with changing Russian-Georgian relations. To improve these volatile relations, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili’s government is likely to give Russian forces more access to the Pankisi. At the Russian-Georgian summit in February, Saakashvili publicly stated that his government would assist Russia in bringing stability to the North Caucasus. He stated that one of the measures for achieving this aim might be joint anti-guerrilla operations at the Georgian-Russian border. According to the sources, the entry of the Russian task force and special services into Pankisi for search and detection operations was one of the main topics of negotiations between Saakashvili and Russian Secretary of the Security Council Igor Ivanov during his recent visit in Tbilisi (Mtavari Gazeti May 31). In early June, a delegation of the Russian border guard department visited Pankisi and discussed opportunities for joint operations with Georgian counterparts (Rustavi-2 TV, Imedi-TV June 2). However, no agreements have been reached to date, according to sources. The first signs of Tbilisi’s changing attitude toward Chechnya appeared shortly after downfall of Shevardnadze’s government. Georgian authorities have closed down representation of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria in Tbilisi, which had been operating since 1997. A court released several Chechens arrested by Georgian police for violating the Georgian-Chechen border. However, they subsequently disappeared and were later found in the hands of Russian special services.
It is no secret that Shevardnadze’s government was not only sheltering Chechen separatists in Pankisi, but also providing them moral, political and material support, including arms supply. Corrupt leaders from the Georgian “force” agencies profit from deals with Chechen insurgents. Tbilisi’s policy of trying to trump Moscow in response to Russian support for separatists in Abkhazia and ex-South Ossetia finally rebounded on Georgia. Russian propaganda used the presence of Chechen guerrillas in Pankisi to discredit Georgia’s international image, accusing Georgia of supporting international terrorism. The clumsy attempt of the then-Georgian government to regain control over breakaway Abkhazia by helping Chechen fighters under rogue commander Ruslan Gelaev in October 2001 created more obstacles to settling the conflict. The Georgian government plans to investigate this issue.
Meanwhile, Russia has resumed its “search-and kill” operations against rebel groups in the mountainous regions of Chechnya, including the area bordering Georgia (RIA Novosti June 8). Political analyst Soso Tsintsadze said that Russia acutely needs Georgian support to cope, not only with the Chechen conflict, but also with the turbulent situation in Ingushetia and Dagestan (Resonance June 11). Georgia’s effort to accommodate Moscow appears to be a risky undertaking for Tbilisi, particularly taking into account the position of radical Chechen militant leaders, who might consider Tbilisi’s anti-Chechen move as an act of betrayal.
Whatever the Russian importunity to carry out a purging operation in Pankisi, the latter will remain a headache for Putin until there is a serious effort by Moscow to resolve the Chechen conflict, which is unlikely in the near future. Tbilisi most likely understands the risks hidden in the Chechen problem in Pankisi and will not go to extremes. The Chechen issue might become a sort of “litmus test” in Georgian-Russian relations.