Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 2 Issue: 14

The March 30 issue of the French newspaper Liberation carried the text of an interview conducted with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. Much of the interview concerned the volatile Georgian-Chechen border area. “In this region, on the Georgian side,” Shevardnadze commented, “live 16,000 ethnic Chechens [Kists] who have been dwelling for ninety years in the Pankiisk Gorge. Before the first war [of 1994-1996] this frontier was not guarded. Some of its inhabitants participated in the first conflict and, without doubt, also in this one. How can one prevent them from doing so?”

“Moscow,” Shevardnadze continued, “accuses us of opening our frontier so that arms can reach the rebels. In reality, the situation is the following: at the Russian military base near Tbilisi one can both buy and sell arms…. They are Russian arms.” As for the situation on the border, Shevardnadze recalled: “Before the beginning of the second Chechen campaign [October 1999], the Russian and Georgian border-guards increased their control. Twenty observers from the OSCE were also deployed there; unfortunately, their number is insufficient. In spite of such measures, during the winter of 1999, a group of 8,000 persons–consisting 85 percent of women, the elderly, children and the wounded–attempted to cross over the frontier. What should one have done? Open fire? They asked our permission to join their people in the Pankiisk Gorge, and we agreed. But Moscow continues to accuse us of giving asylum to rebels who have committed terrorist acts in Russia.”

When, in October 1999, Shevardnadze went on, then Russian President Boris Yeltsin telephoned him and asked permission for Russian forces based in Georgia to be allowed to enter the Pankiisk Gorge, he told Yeltsin that the situation there was very complex. “I knew that if the Kists opened fire on the Russian troops during their passage through the Gorge, it would be the beginning of a second Caucasus-wide war.” “To be sure,” Shevardnadze remarked, “we are a small country, but we have our self-respect and our own interests! But the Russians were vexed. Perhaps not Putin, but one sensed that on the part of their military. They were upset that, at a difficult moment, Georgia did not open up its territory to them. But one does not make such requests of a sovereign state!”