Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 26

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and visiting Russian Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo have agreed, on January 29-30 in Tbilisi, to initiate repatriating Chechen refugees living in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge to Russia. This decision comes against the backdrop of Georgia’s carefully calibrated police operation, underway since January 15 and thus far successful, to suppress ordinary crime and restore effective Georgian control in the Pankisi Gorge.

The agreement on principle envisages, in broad terms, creating a Georgian-Russian joint commission to operate on site, compile a list of the refugees, determine their places of origin in Russia and return them to their homes on the basis of voluntary consent. Both sides expect the process to be complicated and time consuming.

Shevardnadze had all along called for repatriation, but Moscow turned a deaf ear, while the refugees themselves–who have no regular spokesmen–could be heard expressing fear or at least reluctance at the prospect of being returned to war-torn Chechnya.

On February 5 in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin ordered Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu to create an interdepartmental “operational group” within the Russian government to constitute the Russian side of the Georgian-Russian joint commission for the repatriation of Chechens from Pankisi. Under Putin’s instructions as publicly reported, this operational group would include the Foreign Affairs, Internal Affairs and Emergency Situations ministries and the Border Troops’ command, also reserving a role for the Moscow-installed Chechen administration in Djohar (Grozny). The actual instructions can hardly fail to include the Federal Security Service and military intelligence in the Russian operational group.

In his comments yesterday, Shoigu underscored the voluntary nature of the repatriation, “based on each individual’s request to return to the previous place of residence.” He recommended that the “evacuation be conducted without haste and in a calm manner.” Shoigu stated that Moscow expects Georgia to supply nominal lists of the estimated 7,000 refugees, and cautioned that it will be necessary to guarantee the security of the Russian representatives participating in the repatriation effort. This last caveat may at some point become the grounds for proposing the introduction of Russian troops in the Pankisi Gorge and the Akhmeta district as a whole.

Rushailo apparently tried in vain to obtain Georgian consent to the introduction of some Russian security forces in that area. His January 29-30 public statements in Tbilisi, and those of his Georgian counterpart Nugzar Sajaia, seem replete with allusions that Moscow sought and Tbilisi rejected such “joint operations.” Officially inspired reports in Moscow media suggested that Rushailo offered the familiar tradeoff, whereby Georgia would allow Russian troops into Pankisi, in return for cancellation of the discriminatory visa regime, imposed in 2000 on Georgia alone among the CIS countries. In their discussions with Rushailo, however, Shevardnadze and Foreign Affairs Minister Irakli Menagharishvili ruled out any such “joint operations.”

Russian officials seem intent, however, on returning to that issue. Putin’s top aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky declared that Tbilisi’s willingness to work with Russia on repatriation constituted a first step toward “admitting” that Chechen “terrorists” were based in Pankisi. He said that he now expected Georgia to go all the way in “admitting” to that. In a similar vein, Putin’s closest confidante, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, addressing a Munich audience last week, came close to portraying the Pankisi situation as justifying a Russian “antiterrorist” operation.

While the agreement to repatriate the refugees should help defuse the pressure on Georgia, two fresh complications are now being introduced by Russian officials. Some officials suggest accommodating, if only cosmetically, certain Georgian proposals on the mandate of “peacekeeping” troops in Abkhazia, as a supplementary incentive for Tbilisi to authorize “joint” Russian-Georgian security operations in Pankisi (the initial incentive being the offer to lift the visa regime).

The other complication stems from Moscow’s suddenly expanded definition of the “Pankisi Gorge” problem. Russian officials now speak of a need to restore order not only in Pankisi, but as well in the Akhmeta district as a whole. For a pretext, they point to Georgian vigilante activities, underway on and off since January in Akhmeta to fend off Pankisi criminals. Although Tbilisi’s police operation in Pankisi promises to deprive the vigilante groups of their raison d’etre, Moscow officials mutter darkly about a potential ethnic or religious conflict in Akhmeta and loss of Georgian control there, requiring Russian assistance.

For their part, Georgian officials–among them Internal Affairs Minister Koba Narchemashvili, in charge of the police operation in Pankisi–underscore the importance of refraining from any large-scale, military-type actions that could spark a conflagration. Instead, the police are working with the majority of local Kist Chechens and Chechen refugees from Russia to isolate and gradually detain crime leaders. The Georgian officials’ unstated point is that the Russian approach, as practiced across the border in Chechnya, would spark a conflagration in Pankisi if applied there.

The proposed repatriation faces daunting obstacles in spite of the relatively small number of Chechen refugees. Many of them seem likely to refuse to apply, either for repatriation to Chechnya, where Russian troops brutalize the remaining civilian population, or for transfer to refugee camps in Ingushetia where Chechens fare not much better. For its part, Tbilisi has more than once assured the refugees that no one would be repatriated forcibly. Shevardnadze’s reassurances must remain credible to the refugees in order for Tbilisi’s police operation to succeed painlessly and for the pacification to take hold in Pankisi.

Down the road, Moscow and Tbilisi may disagree as to the “terrorist” affiliation of individual Chechen refugees. But, most important for Georgia’s security, the joint operation with Russia to repatriate the Pankisi refugees will expose the falsity of Moscow’s charges that Chechen, Arabn and all manner of “international terrorists” maintain supply bases and training camps in the Pankisi Gorge. On the other hand, any coercive repatriation could provoke violent resistance and, with it, renewed Russian demands to introduce troops (Prime-News, Georgian and Rustavi-2 televisions, Tbilisi Radio, Interfax, NTV, January 30-February 5; see the Monitor, November 29-30, December 7, 2001, January 29).

The Monitor is a publication of the Jamestown Foundation. It is researched and written under the direction of senior analysts Jonas Bernstein, Vladimir Socor, Stephen Foye, and analysts Ilya Malyakin, Oleg Varfolomeyev and Ilias Bogatyrev. If you have any questions regarding the content of the Monitor, please contact the foundation. If you would like information on subscribing to the Monitor, or have any comments, suggestions or questions, please contact us by e-mail at pubs@jamestown.org, by fax at 301-562-8021, or by postal mail at The Jamestown Foundation, 4516 43rd Street NW, Washington DC 20016. Unauthorized reproduction or redistribution of the Monitor is strictly prohibited by law. Copyright (c) 1983-2002 The Jamestown Foundation Site Maintenance by Johnny Flash Productions