The fallout continues over the recent public statement by Richard Miles, U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, about the presence of terrorist groups in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge (see EDM, September 16).
On September 21, Georgian Interior Ministry forces, in cooperation with the Security Ministry, inspected the Pankisi region in an attempt to demonstrate that the Gorge, which lies in the northeastern part of Georgia near the Chechen section of the Russo-Georgian border, no longer represents a terrorist threat. The operation was carried out in the presence of Georgian and foreign media. The move followed the rekindled allegations by certain Russian officials regarding the presence of Chechen fighters and terrorist groups in Pankisi. On September 17, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Valery Loshchinin claimed, “terrorists training bases” still remain in the Gorge.
The special operation, which was personally supervised by the deputy Interior and Security Ministers, involved a door-to-door review of identification papers and documents held by the Chechen refugees living in the Gorge, whose number has halved over the past years from 5,000 to about 2,650. The interviews and nitpicking were particularly aimed at the male refugees (TV-Rustavi-2, TV-Imedi, Civil Georgia, September 21).
“We absolutely control the situation here. But we want to further tighten control over Pankisi. We are going to set up patrol groups from law enforcement agencies that will carry out round-the-clock patrols of the Gorge. This will help to reduce crime as well,” Giorgi Getsadze, the Deputy Interior Minister, told reporters.
Deputy Security Minister Gigi Ugulava dismissed accusations regarding the presence of Chechen fighters and terrorist bases in Pankisi as “disinformation.” As he explained, “This information is far from the truth. Our inspection has confirmed that there are no fighters or terrorists in Pankisi.” However, he added, “None of the country is secure from the presence of terrorists. But several years ago there were terrorist training bases here. Now that problem has been eradicated” (Civil Georgia, TV-Rustavi-2, Regnum.ru, RIA-Novosti, September 21).
At the moment, internal troops still operate checkpoints in Pankisi; however, their presence has been reduced after the Gorge was swept in 2002-2003 to clear illegal armed groups from the territory. Georgian officials claimed there is no need to station a large number of troops in the Gorge any more, as the situation is rather stable and quiet.
Despite continuous reports by Georgian officials, as well as the September 16 clarification by the U.S. Department of State, touting the success of the anti-terror operation in Pankisi, independent sources doubt that the area has been fully cleansed of armed groups.
Unlike previous inspections, no human rights violations were reported during the September 21 operation. The Chechen refugees patiently accepted the operation. “We absolutely understand this move by Georgian authorities and have nothing against this kind of check. But, on the other hand, it still increases fears among the Chechen refugees, because this kind of move occurs every time someone in Russia says that there are terrorists in Pankisi,” Chechen refugee Aslanbek Aburzakaev told Civil Georgia.
Chechen refugees have lived in the Gorge since 1999, when they were displaced by the second Chechen war. Despite the relatively calm situation now, locals fearfully watched the recent developments in Russia following the Beslan school siege. “We are afraid that Russians will start searching for terrorists in Pankisi again,” one Chechen refugee from Grozny said. A woman refugee said resolutely, “Everybody who can fight is in Chechnya fighting for independence” (Regnum.ru, September 21).
The Chechen refugees’ fears further increased on September 19, when Russian aircraft violated Georgian airspace above the village of Shatili, which is near the Chechen section of the Georgian-Russian border. Georgian and Russian border guard officials have recently intensified their cooperation and have agreed on closer ties in exchange for information, in an attempt to prevent the possible cross-border movement of illegal armed groups. Another meeting will take place in October to outline the details of this cooperation, according to the Georgian Border Guard Department (Civil Georgia, September 20).
Some commentators, particularly from Russia, argue that the special operation in Pankisi and increased Georgian-Russian cooperation in this area result from recent negotiations between President Mikheil Saakashvili and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, including talks at the September 17 CIS summit in Astana. “We act in coordination with Russia,” Saakashvili told the media when in New York for the UN General Assembly 59th session (Civil Georgia, Regnum.ru, September 21). Saakashvili’s UN address contained tough remarks towards the Chechen fighters (TV Mze, September 21).
Political analyst Paata Zakareishvili says that the much-talked-about statement about Pankisi by Ambassador Miles was a sound diplomatic move and not a mistake, as some Georgian politicians argue, because Miles forewarned the Georgian political leadership about the grave consequences that the presence of terrorists in Pankisi could have brought the country (Week’s Palette, September 20).