The North Caucasus Factor in Georgia

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 20

Russia has played the North Caucasus card against the Georgians once before – during the armed conflict of August-September 1992. At the time, Russia took advantage of the close ethnic ties between the Abkhaz and the Adyg (both are members of the same language subgroup within the Caucasus language family) by placing volunteer units recruited from the North Caucasus ethnicities, including the Cossacks, in the vanguard of its armed forces, which nevertheless played a very active hand in the conflict as well. The supply of military equipment, including helicopters, and air attacks on Georgian positions, were all meant to convey Russia’s support as well as a warning to Georgia for attempting to escape the protective hand of its onetime Big Brother (a common name for ethnic Russians vis-à-vis all other USSR ethnicities).

The Chechen syndrome in Abkhazia is still a hot issue for Georgia, and any reports of Chechen activities in the region are treated by official Tbilisi as a cause for alarm, usually followed by frantic outreach to prominent Chechen politicians in the hope of obtaining reassurances to the contrary. In the eyes of the Abkhaz, well-known Chechen names include not only Shamil Basaev, but also Khamzat Khankarov and Ruslan Gelaev, who in Abkhazia are seen as heroes. The Georgians, in contrast, are still embroiled in arguments about the true roles of Basaev, Khankarov and Gelaev in the 1992 war. These names are also obscured by the inaccurate or deliberately false reports of some writers and reporters who rely on unsubstantiated information perpetuated by the Russian mass media. Shamil Basaev never served as Abkhazia’s Minister of Defense—that position was held at the time by an ethnic Kabardinian Soviet army officer Sultan Aslanbekovich Susnaliev (conversation with Kabardino-Balkaria parliament member V. B. Makhov, The army chief of staff job was given to an ethnic Adyg, Amin Zehov, and the commander of the navy was a Dagestani Soviet navy officer, Ali Aliev. Even the Chechen troops, contrary to popular belief, were commanded by Khamzat Khankarov and not Shamil Basaev, who did not assume command until the Abkhazia conflict was almost over (which was grudgingly confirmed even by such infamous journalists as Yevgeny Krutikov, in an article published in Izvestia on June 4, 2001).

Emerging reports that the army units loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov have been dispatched to Georgia are yet another manifestation of the fundamental problem—that is, Russia’s complete and unilateral control over who gets sent where and when. The first reports, in December 2007, were confirmed by Chechnya’s Deputy Military Commissar, Said-Magomed Kakiev, who said that troops from his battalion were stationed in South Ossetia, while the Vostok battalion (which was commanded by Sulim Yamadaev) was moved to Abkhazia.

Considering that today’s army, in contrast to the volunteer units of 1992, is made up of career military professionals hailing from the elite units of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) of Russia’s Ministry of Defense, Georgia’s government has every reason to be worried that the presence of these troops will not contribute to increased stability in the areas of the conflict.

Georgia is making a strong effort to appeal to the international community, and in a much savvier manner compared to the early 1990s. Its goal today is to make the world understand the importance of Abkhazia and South Ossetia for Georgia. Even its withdrawal from the CIS common air defense system treaty (which in any case became defunct shortly after its conclusion) became yet another step in Georgia’s campaign to elevate its problems with Russia to the international stage. Many in the White House have never heard of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia that put Russia and Georgia on a collision course. However, as the Washington Post reported (, May 6), the West has to start treating tensions between Russia and Georgia a lot more seriously. This matter is casting a shadow on the reputation of the West, which brought about the Rose Revolution but did little to secure Georgia’s true liberation from the Russian bear’s tight hold.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza was dispatched on an urgent visit to Georgia to demonstrate America’s support. The meeting with the president of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia, Sergei Bagapsh, did not and could not produce any results because the right place to have these meetings and discussions is in Moscow—not Sukhumi—that is, with the people who have real control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

A no-holds-barred campaign against Georgia was launched in which no blow was too low. A Georgian spy was “suddenly” captured in Chechnya to everyone’s amusement—the arrest of a Chechen with a Georgian last name who allegedly had ties to the underground movement does not, charitably speaking, stand up to any scrutiny (, interview with Georgian Minister of State Timur Yakoboshvili, May 16, 2008).

On May 16, a plenary session of the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the immediate development of a timeline for the return of Georgian refugees to Abkhazia and restoring the ethnic mix of the unrecognized republic back to its state before the 1992 Georgia-Abkhazia conflict (, May 15). However, this action drew the objections of Abkhazia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Shamba, who stated that any decisions adopted without input from the Abkhazian side should not even be a matter for discussion (, May 16).

The statements made by Dieter Boden, the head of mission of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/DIHR) for election monitoring, regarding the need to recognize Abkhazia’s independence—made in the context of Kosovo independence, which is used by both the Russians and the Abkhaz as propaganda fodder to promote their respective positions (, May 14)—generated angry reactions within Georgia’s political elite. Former President Edward Shevardnadze said that in this case, “one shouldn’t forget about the Chechen Republic that was forcibly brought into Russia. Chechens will ramp up their activities very shortly and my advice is to take advantage of this moment. Georgia’s government should use Chechens’ increased activity and ensure the return of Abkhazia” (Kommersant, May 16).

According to those who took part in the military march toward Sukhumi, former President Shevardnadze tried to play the Chechen card during his conflict with Russia. During his presidency and with his tacit consent, the Pankisi Gorge became a haven for the Chechen armed forces that, up until 2003, used this site as a base for units entering Chechnya and for transporting the wounded to neighboring countries. Shevardnadze’s term also saw an attempt to seize Abkhazia’s capital of Sukhumi in 2001, but U.S. interference put a stop to this operation when the troops were only a few miles away from Sukhumi. The storming of Sukhumi was supposed to serve as the rehabilitation of Ruslan Gelaev, who had been instrumental in pushing Georgian troops out of Sukhumi ten years before the attempted takeover.

Instead of their usual tactics of appealing to the conscience of the Russian military and waiting for the arrival of U.S. troops, Georgia should let Russia know—in no uncertain terms—that it intends to revise its relationship with the Chechen rebel fighters who were recognized by Georgia’s first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, and his parliament. This step will certainly cool some heads in the Kremlin.

Georgia ran into some bad luck: for Russia, the loss of Kosovo has to be compensated by the triumph of diplomacy in Georgia, and Russia will do everything in its power to gain the upper hand in this conflict in order to avoid the perception that it is losing all of its battles, one after the other. This is why it is futile to hope that the Russians will give up seeking a minor military victory over a region they have controlled for the last two hundred plus years.