THE CHECHEN TRAIL IN GEORGIA: REPORT FROM PANKIISK GORGE
Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 5
By Igor Rotar
“The only problem is your nationality. The Chechens may have left journalists alone during the last war, but today people see any Russian as their enemy. It’s not even the paramilitaries who are dangerous–it’s the young lads who will kill you just so they can boast to their friends that they’ve done a good deed.” These are the words of a middle-aged Chechen whom I met in a cafe in downtown Tbilisi. My interlocutor (we shall call him Ibrahim) is a native of Pankiisk Gorge. This is a region of Georgia which borders on Chechnya, and which is densely populated by Kistin Chechens (an ethnic subgroup of the Chechen people). A year ago Ibrahim worked as a hunter, but now he has a new career working as a guide, leading people illegally over the mountains into Chechnya from Georgia. He claims that since the war began about a dozen Georgian citizens from Pankiisk Gorge have been specializing in this rather lucrative line of business. In an average month you can cross the border three or four times. My interviewee declined to tell me exactly how many mercenaries had crossed over into Chechnya from Georgia, but he did say that “no more than twenty or so volunteers crossed the border in a good month.” And times have been very difficult for the smugglers since the end of February: The Russian and Georgian border guards have closed the road from Itum-Kale to Shatili. Construction of this road, which the Chechen press dubbed the “road of life,” began before this current war. Djohar [Grozny] attached great strategic significance to it, as it was supposed to break Russia’s blockade of the breakaway republic. Since the closure of the Shatili section of the border, it is only possible to get into Chechnya over the mountain paths. How many people can be taken across at once depends on how well trained they are: A guide may take just one person with him if he is new to the mountains; but if his clients are professionals, then ten people can be taken across at one time.
Incidentally, Moscow’s accusations about the mass supply of weapons from Georgia to Chechnya need to be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. For the time being–until the snow melts in the hills–it is only possible to negotiate the mountain passes on foot, meaning that at most one grenade launcher can be carried. Even in summer large-scale arms supplies are unrealistic since the closure of the Shatili sector: No more than thirty machine guns can be carried on one horse. A caravan usually consists of five or six animals.
But it is equally naive to go to the other extreme and claim that absolutely no aid from Georgia is coming into the rebel Russian region. However, the blame here lies equally with Tbilisi and Moscow. For example, one of the busiest routes for smuggling arms and mujaheddin goes through not just Georgia, but also Dagestan. In the Georgian settlement of Omalo, which borders on Dagestan, there is a border post, but it is manned by a mere thirty or so border guards who are simply in no position to apprehend all violators. Meanwhile, the Russian side of the border is totally unmanned: There is no permanent border post here, and there is only periodic monitoring carried out by mobile patrols. On the Russian side, a road begins right from the border linking the mountains of Dagestan with the Chechen villages Serzhen-Yurt and Shali. In Dagestan the road traverses some rather unreliable territory. In this region, populated by Avars (one of the peoples of Dagestan), there is a fairly strong fundamentalist influence (the so-called Wahhabis, who advocate uniting Dagestan and Chechnya into a united Islamic state). A native of this area and one of the leaders of Dagestan’s Wahhabis is mullah Bagauddin, who was granted “political asylum” in Chechnya about two years ago. It should also be noted that in August last year there were bloody battles between the federal forces and Basaev’s and Khattab’s units, where the Russian army was confronted not just by Chechen fighters but also by local fundamentalists who had been trained in the neighboring rebel republic. Aid from Transcaucasia to warring Chechnya may rise sharply from early May, when the snow on the hills finally melts, greatly increasing the opportunities for illegal border crossings by arms smugglers and mercenaries. Pankiisk Gorge represents the main threat to stability in Georgia. As we drove in, our car was stopped by Georgian police, who made a lengthy and critical examination of my ID: “You really want to go and see the Chechens?! Well, we can’t stop you, however dangerous it is.”
The incredulity of the police is understandable–this region has a bad reputation in the republic. Just a year ago, local residents attempted to declare Pankiisk Gorge an “independent Islamic territory,” and even wanted to open a branch of Khattab’s subversive school. And since the influx of refugees from Chechnya into the gorge, Tbilisi has entirely lost control of the region and is trying to isolate its “little Chechnya.” Basically, Georgian laws are no longer in operation here. Concrete slabs have been placed at the border of the Gorge, preventing road traffic from passing through quickly, and entry is controlled by reinforced units of Georgian police. Incidentally, the Georgian police themselves only enter the area if it is absolutely unavoidable. Their caution is easy to explain: There have been cases where officers who have risked entering the region have been ambushed or have had their vehicles commandeered. Foreigners bringing humanitarian aid are wary of going deep into the territory; they leave their aid on the outskirts of the local “capital” Duisi and quickly head back to Tbilisi.
Within ten minutes of arriving in the Gorge you realize that the area is not a typical Georgian region. The first thing you see on entering Duisi is a group of drug pushers, conducting their business quite openly. The drugs are brought over the mountains from Chechnya and are half the price they are in other regions of Georgia.
But drug trafficking is not the worst problem facing the Georgian authorities in Pankiisk Gorge. “Today there are about 6,000 refugees from Chechnya living in Pankiisk Gorge–in other words about the same number as there are Kistins themselves. About 80 percent of the refugees have been given shelter by local inhabitants, and the rest live in administration buildings,” a member of the Duisi village council–Apollon Gaurgshvili–told Prism. It is quite natural that for the economically backward mountain region (unemployment was high here even in Soviet times) such an influx of people may have unforeseen consequences. The main stumbling block is the distribution of humanitarian aid. Many Kistins are extremely unhappy that by law aid should only be given to refugees. Several mafia groups are engaged in a desperate battle for control of humanitarian aid.
Yet the criminal activity surrounding humanitarian aid and the severe social problems caused by the mass influx of refugees are seen as a mere “nuisance” in comparison with the main threat posed to Tbilisi by the unruly region.
Prism’s correspondent noted that there is a very high proportion of men of military age among the refugees. The Georgian authorities themselves do not dispute the fact that there are weapons in almost every house in Pankiisk Gorge. It is basically irrelevant whether the paramilitaries have military bases in the Gorge or whether well-armed refugees from Chechnya simply live in ordinary homes–the situation would be the same in either case. It is far more important to establish who these people’s weapons are pointing at. If the Russian forces continue to push into the mountains of Chechnya, the fighters will have no option but to retreat to Pankiisk Gorge, in which case the Gorge will truly become a militarized area serving as a base for subversive Chechen activity against the federal forces. However, another possible development should not be ruled out. Radical Chechen commanders may try to “blow up” the whole Caucasus. It is unlikely that the Georgian army will find it easy to defeat the Chechen units, even though they are relatively small. The Georgians have already had the grim experience of fighting the Chechens during the war in Abkhazia. It should not be forgotten that Chechens were involved in the attempt on Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze’s life, which only failed by a lucky chance. The arrested terrorists later admitted that they had undergone training in a school of subversion in Chechnya.
As we left Duisi our car was unexpectedly stopped by two armed men; one was dressed in camouflage, the other was a typical paramilitary–bearded and wearing a Sufi hat (Sufism is an Islamic tendency traditional in Chechnya). Our driver leapt out to do the talking, and managed to persuade the men not to search our vehicle. “One of them was a Kistin, the other was from Chechnya–he didn’t speak a word of Georgian. Let’s hope that in six months they won’t be trying to check my documents in Tbilisi,” joked our driver, clearly unnerved.
Igor Rotar is an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.