A visit to Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge by officials of the Putin and Kadyrov administrations, which occurred just before the October 5 election, produced strikingly modest results. The visitors failed to persuade a single Chechen refugee to join them on their return flight. Some eleven families reportedly agreed to return later to their hometown of Sernovodsk in western Chechnya, but this is only a tiny fraction of the thousands of Chechens living in Georgia. (The official Russian estimate is 2,650; other sources have given higher estimates.)
The importance that Moscow attached to the trip was obvious from the ranks of the participants, who included Stanislav Ilyasov, head of the Russian Federation’s Ministry for Chechen Affairs. Also present were the current administrative heads of specific local districts in Chechnya from which Pankisi Gorge refugees are known to have fled. The visitors brought with them some twenty tons of food and clothing, a bounty that many of the refugees saw as a bribe to lure them back to their unsafe homeland.
Observing the encounter was Yelena Milashina of Novaya gazeta, who wrote in an October 6 article for that newspaper that it had at first taken on the character of an anti-Moscow protest rally. A frustrated Yury Brazhnikov, the Russian Federation’s deputy minister for emergency situations, found himself confronting a scarred Chechen who accused him of trying to drag the refugees back into a “meat grinder.” Brazhnikov tried to assure the man that he would be safe under amnesty, but received the unwelcome reply “How can you amnesty me, if I don’t consider myself a Russian? I am a free man, a citizen of the Chechen Republic!”
Brazhnikov, who has visited Pankisi many times in the last year and a half, confirmed to Milashina that the main purpose of the visit was to persuade Chechens to come home. His optimism about this, he said, was founded partly on the fact that hundreds of Pankisi Gorge refugees had already returned to Chechnya and then come back to the gorge, repeating this round trip more than once. Just in the last two months, he said, the number of those living in Pankisi had dropped by a few hundred. What the refugees are now being offered, Brazhnikov insisted, is a chance to return legally, to live not in an abandoned wasteland but in dormitories that have been made ready for them–and also to receive pensions, compensation for their lost housing and other social benefits.
According to Milashina’s account, the refugees responded with “slogans”–demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops, independence for Chechnya, the restoration of President Maskhadov–but they also left open the possibility of a compromise agreement. One Aslambek Abdurazakov, who stepped forward as a self-appointed spokesman but whose words seemed to have broad support among his fellow refugees, said that he might be willing to return if a council of the refugees themselves should vote for that option.
Nevertheless, the refugees clearly remained profoundly suspicious. Despite the relief supplies, Milashina emphasized that they still lack reliable guarantees of their physical safety from “zachistki” security sweeps and other such practices. In effect they are being asked to risk their lives in return for a promise of federal subsidies.