On February 14, a delegation from the Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations arrived in Tbilisi, Georgia. Its goal was to attempt to come to agreement with the Georgian side concerning the return of Chechen refugees living in the Pankisi Gorge area of northeastern Georgia to their home republic. “The chances for success in the negotiations,” the newspaper Kommersant observed, “are de facto equivalent to zero. The delegation from the Ministry for Emergency Situations of the Russian Federation is not being headed by Sergei Shoigu, as had been planned earlier, but by his deputy, Yury Brazhnikov. This is evidently connected with the fact that the Ministry relates with skepticism to the possible success of the given mission. After all, the sides did not succeed in agreeing on the work which the delegation of the Ministry is to perform directly in the Pankisi Gorge” (Kommersant, February 15).
At a press conference held in Tbilisi on February 15, Brazhnikov announced that it is currently planned to begin the first stage of the return of refugees from Chechnya living in the Pankisi Gorge to their home republic in May-June of this year. A joint commission, he added, is to be created consisting of the official structures of Georgia and Russia and also of the Council of Elders of the Pankisi Gorge and Chechen refugees. “Those who wish to return to their homeland,” he stressed, “will be identified” (RIA Novosti, February 15).
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has said that it is concerned that the Russian authorities could attempt to force the more than 7,000 Chechen refugees currently living in Georgia to go back to Russia despite the fact that “it is not safe for them to go home.” UNHRC spokesman Peter Kessler noted that a majority of these refugees are women, children and the elderly, and that about 80 percent of them live with host families of the Kist ethnic group in northern Georgia (VOA, February 11). It should be remarked, further, that, on February 8, a spokesman for the Georgian Foreign Ministry, Kakha Sikharulidze, underscored during a press conference that the return of Chechen refugees to their homes would be on a “voluntary basis.” The Georgian authorities, Sikharulidze emphasized, had ruled out the use of military or other coercive means to repatriate the refugees (Civil Georgia, February 8).
A reporter for Kommersant Vlast, Ol’ga Allenova, visited and spoke with a number of Chechen refugees residing in the Pankisi Gorge region. “In the year 2000,” she noted, “the Chechens in Pankisi received the status of refugees. Each month the UN brings them groceries. Each person is allotted 17 kilograms of flour, a liter of salted butter and a kilogram of peas. The people consume the food quickly because they have nothing else.” The refugees also bake a strange concoction called “Chechen bread” which effectively serves to save their lives. “Not one of these people [the refugees],” Allenova stressed, “wants to return to Chechnya. They cannot forgive Russia for what the war has done to them.” “We will return to Chechnya,” a mother of four small boys told her, “only when they withdraw the Russian troops. So long as the Russian soldiers remain, I will not set foot there.” The unofficial representative of Aslan Maskhadov in Georgia, Khizri Aldamov, predicted to Allenova what would happen to those refugees who are returned to Chechnya: “All of them will be driven like cattle into filtration camps. The male populace in general will not reach their destination [alive]. The world should not be deceived” (Kommersant Vlast, February 12).
In a similar vein, journalist Akaky Mikadze reported in the February 13 issue of Moskovskie Novosti that, to date, no one among the Chechen refugees living in Georgia has publicly declared a desire voluntarily to return to the homeland. “In the words of eyewitnesses, every Chechen in Pankisi, including the children and women, are full of hatred for the very word ‘Russian’ and are potentially ready to take up arms.”