On April 21, Georgian company Peri began construction on the Khadori-3 hydroelectric station (HES) with a capacity of 5 megawatts (MW). Construction started near the villages of Birkiani and Dzibakhevi, in Pankisi Gorge (Civil.ge, April 21). This Georgian region (not far from the border with Russian Chechnya) is populated by a 200-year-old Chechen community referred to as “Kists” by most Georgians, but whose members call themselves “Vainakhs.” Negotiations with local residents on the construction of Khadori-3 have been going on for almost a year, and the authorities gave the impression that they were nearing a settlement with the most influential families in Pankisi. Investors promised village residents financial and other assistance. But as it turned out, for the majority of Vainakhs, the construction of another HES in the area is so unacceptable that they are ready to physically resist it. Pankisi leaders justify their refusal by saying that an HES will cause catastrophic damage to the environment while providing limited benefit since the capacity will only be 5 MW.
Clashes in the gorge began after authorities sent riot police to the village of Birkiani to protect Peri contractors and patrol officers. In response, the Vainakhs threw stones at police officers and beat them with clubs. Riot police, in turn, used batons, tear gas, and rubber bullets to regain control (Jam-news, April 21). In all, 55 people were injured including 17 civilians and 38 police officers (Civil.ge, April 21).
In the aftermath of the clashes, Georgian Interior Minister George Gakharia arrived on the scene and held talks with local Chechen leaders. He ultimately banned the construction of Khadori-3 in Pankisi Gorge and ordered riot police to withdraw (Civil.ge, April 21). Additionally, Gakharia vowed that all who attacked the police would be punished; however, as of yet, law enforcement has not arrested anybody.
Following the clashes, the opposition immediately attacked the government of Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze, both for deploying the police to Pankisi and for the ensuing “shameful flight.” In an interview with this author, on April 26, Georgian Republic Party leader David Berdzenishvili asserted, “Minister Gakharia was forced to flee the gorge after the people of Pankisi clearly said they would not back down in defending their rights.” He added, “In provoking the conflict in Pankisi,” the chairperson of the ruling Georgian Dream party, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, “is trying to paint the Chechens as an enemy” in order to bolster his own weakening informal power. Bakhtadze further argued, “Georgian society fully supports the Chechens in their struggle against the construction of a hydroelectric power station. Ivanishvili tried to break them by force but failed.”
The Georgian government naturally disagrees with Berdzenishvili’s overall assessment. According to the chair of the Parliamentary Defense and Security Committee, Irakli Sesiashvili, “The police acted in full compliance with the law. We respect the civil rights of the Pankisi residents. But everyone is equal before the law” (Author’s interview, April 26).
Nevertheless, the parliamentary opposition is readying an attempt to replace the government. David Darchiashvili, one of the leaders of the European Georgia party, stipulated, “The only way out of the situation is a change of power in Georgia.” In Darchiashvili’s opinion, the non-professionalism, incompetence and irresponsibility of the authorities put the police in a difficult and dangerous situation. He further explained, “If none of those who resisted the police are arrested, this will create a precedent, legitimizing resistance to the police. But if the authorities arrest the residents of Pankisi, it will lead to even more violent protests” (Author’s interview, April 26).
This month’s clashes in Pankisi Gorge represent one of the most serious such incidents in Georgia’s 27 years of independence—but they were not the first. In truth, Tbilisi has had many problems in relations with Pankisi’s Chechens in previous years. Since the early 1990s, rebels fighting against Russia in Chechnya, have been hiding out in Pankisi, including the notorious Chechen commander Ruslan Gilayev. Famously, in 2001/2002, criminal groups operating in the region repeatedly abducted international businessmen and held them for ransom (see Monitor, January 29, 2002; Civil.ge, October 5, 2001; EurasiaNet, January 29, 2002).
Terrorism expert Nino Burchuladze has noted that, since 2013, hundreds of Chechens from Pankisi Gorge have gone to fight in Syria for the Islamic State (ISIS). She pointed out, “Tarkhan Batirashvili [a.k.a. Abu Omar Al-Shishani], a resident of Pankisi, became the minister of defense of ISIS” (Author’s interview, April 26).
Burchuladze is confident that the construction of the Khadori-3 hydroelectric plant is not the only cause of discontent among residents of Pankisi. She argued, “Only a few thousand families live in the gorge. Many Chechens left to fight in Syria. Now ISIS is almost completely destroyed, but Chechens cannot return home because the Georgian authorities are threatening to arrest them for participation in a terrorist organization. Of course, this causes discontent” (Author’s interview, April 26).
Beyond concerns of growing terrorism, the expert drew attention to another external factor: “Residents of Pankisi Gorge retain close ties with Chechnya of Ramzan Kadyrov. Many left to work in Chechnya. Kadyrov and Russian special services have ‘agents of influence’ in the gorge. Perhaps they also played a certain role in recent events” (Author’s interview, April 26).
Looking at the clashes from a different angle, Caucasus expert Mamuka Areshidze was surprised that Georgian authorities decided to send contractors and police there on Palm Sunday. Although, the majority of inhabitants of Pankisi Gorge are Muslim, this auspicious date meant that the clashes took on a religious connotation as Chechens shouted “Allah Akbar” when they attacked Georgian police. Areshidze asserted, “I have no doubt, that some of the residents were preparing for the attack in advance. They are radical Islamists. But there were also ordinary people among the protesters, who were dissatisfied with the construction of the HES. It is difficult to say which category was larger. But one of the extremists [present at the rally was heard shouting] for help from Russia and Chechnya” (Author’s interview, April 26).
Human rights activist Elena Tevdoradze believes that, in order to regain the confidence of the Chechen population, the Georgian government should investigate the tragic death of 18-year-old Tamerlan Machalikashvili, who was shot in the head by Georgian security forces a year and a half ago. Machalikashvili was killed on December 26, 2017, during an operation against Islamic State supporters in Pankisi Gorge (RFE/RL, January 10, 2018). “This tragedy destroyed the Chechens’ confidence in the [Georgian] government,” she contended (Author’s interview, April 26).
At the moment, Pankisi remains calm. But Chechen leaders warn that the inhabitants will resist the police if the authorities try to arrest the participants of the April 21 protests.