Georgian-Abkhaz tensions are being artificially exacerbated by criminal incidents in an Abkhaz-controlled district. On July 9, unidentified gunmen who are presumed to be Georgian guerrillas killed four and kidnapped six residents of the Gulripshi district. The four dead are ethnic Armenians, as are possibly some of the abducted. Not surprisingly, the press in Armenia is paying attention.
The attack followed, and perhaps responded to, the July 8 abduction of three ethnic Georgians by unidentified Abkhaz gunmen in that same district. Unlike Gali and other Abkhaz-controlled districts, Gulripshi had until now been seldom affected by Abkhaz-Georgian clashes. The Georgian gunmen struck from the Kodori Gorge, the only part of pre-1994 Abkhazia not controlled by the secessionist forces. Tbilisi’s writ in the Kodori Gorge is only nominal, however. The Abkhaz take it for granted that Georgia’s state security apparatus orchestrated the July 9 attack.
Abkhazia’s new prime minister Anri Jergenia has seized on that incident as a pretext for suspending the political negotiations with Tbilisi. He has long been in charge of those negotiations as plenipotentiary envoy of Abkhazia’s top leader Vladislav Ardzinba. Jergenia cancelled the Abkhaz participation in the prescheduled meeting on July 17 of the Coordinating Council, the international framework for negotiations between Tbilisi and Sukhumi. The Abkhaz side had all along refused to negotiate on the region’s political status within Georgia. That, among other items, was to have been discussed at the Coordinating Council’s meeting. Instead, the Abkhaz issued statements accusing Georgia of collusion with “terrorism” which affects “other neighboring countries as well.” These Abkhaz statements seek to earn Moscow’s favor by alluding to Russian-Georgian differences over the situation in Pankisi.
The Pankisi Gorge in northeastern Georgia, inhabited by the Kist tribe of Chechens, is being used by local criminal groups as a sanctuary. It is also being used as a haven by some 7,000 refugees from the war in neighboring Chechnya, most of whom are women, children and the elderly, but also include several hundred armed and combat-capable men. Georgian authorities lost control of Pankisi during the course of last year, having concluded that a crackdown would necessitate the deployment of internal affairs troops in the gorge and could spark a conflagration with the highlander population.
Official Tbilisi does what it can to avoid turning a police problem into an interethnic problem. Moscow for its part seeks to turn the situation into an interstate and military problem, pressuring Tbilisi to authorize a Russian “antiterrorism” operation in Pankisi and further afield in the Kakheti Region. The Georgian government steadfastly resists any such extension of Moscow’s anti-Chechen war into Georgia.
A series of abductions for ransom, unresolved and variously blamed on local Kist Chechens and Chechen refugees from Russia, has exacerbated the situation. The captives, believed to be held in Pankisi, include two Spanish businessmen, a Lebanese businessman, the brother of a Georgian football star playing in Italy and the elderly father of a wealthy Tbilisi restaurant owner. Georgian authorities have been trying to resolve these cases through informal contacts with presumed abductors. The authorities seldom show up in Pankisi. They have merely set up checkpoints of internal affairs troops at the entrance to the gorge. The long-pending abduction cases are causing political complications in Tbilisi and international complication for Georgia.
On July 12, criminals presumed to be Kists abducted a Georgian state security officer from the Telavi district, outside Pankisi. Local Georgian civilians, led by the officer’s relatives, responded instantly by forming an armed militia and blocking the entrance to the gorge. The next day, these Georgians kidnapped seven Chechens–including Kists and refugees from Russia–from a public bus. On July 17, the abductors released the state security officer and one other Georgian hostage, in return for one abducted Kist. Criminals in the gorge, however, are holding on to the other hostages. The armed Georgian civilians demand an all-for-all exchange, failing which they would go after the presumed abductors inside the gorge. Such a move would guarantee an eruption of violence and a chain reaction of Georgian-Kist/Chechen vendettas. On July 18, residents of three more Georgian villages joined the armed vigilante force at the entrance to the gorge.
The government in Tbilisi has deployed massive numbers of internal and security troops outside Pankisi while negotiating with informal leaders of Kist and refugee Chechens. Those include the notorious Kist crime boss Vepkhia Margoshvili, a local strongman who is also said to be involved in the Georgia-wide drug trade. Margoshvili has publicly offered to “help” the goverment free the hostages, but has also warned that he is prepared to use force against the state. On July 13, Margoshvili declared on a televised phone-in program that 2,000 armed men would resist any police intervention inside the gorge. While the number is almost certainly a bluff, the threat of violence is real and has outraged the body politic, complicating the government’s position even further.
Tbilisi faces a set of equally unpalatable options. Inaction would only dramatize its loss of control over the area. That in turn could fuel Russian accusations that Georgia tolerates Chechen guerrillas in Pankisi. Those accusations were never substantiated in any way, but the spectacle of Tbilisi’s impotence makes it possible for the Russian propaganda to shift the burden of proof onto Georgia. The government’s inaction could, moreover, facilitate a continuing spillover of Pankisi-based criminal activities into the country. The abductions in Tbilisi provided a foretaste of that. A tacit deal that would entail immunity for the likes of Margoshvili would be just as counterproductive.
Official inaction could, moreover, encourage local Georgians in Telavi and other parts of the country to take the law into their own hands. With unauthorized weapons abounding, the Telavi precedent could inspire similar spontaneous actions by Georgians on the edges of Abkhazia or South Ossetia, where criminal and secessionist activities overlap, and where armed groups act on behalf of both sets of chieftains.
On the other hand, a police crackdown in Pankisi is likely to degenerate into an outright armed conflict, necessitating a massive military deployment. That would drain Georgia’s meager resource and severely interfere with military reform. Other than the few units earmarked for modernization along Western standards, Georgia’s army and internal troops are in sorry shape in every respect.
The use of force could, moreover, reignite the earlier Chechen-Georgian antagonism, and turn the crime problem into an interethnic conflict. That in turn would strengthen the Kremlin’s hand in demanding a “joint antiterrorism operation”–the euphemism for Georgian consent to Russian military intervention–against Chechens in Georgia. And because Moscow wants that operation to be conducted by the Russian troops based in Georgia, the scenario would have been written for those troops to prolong their stay indefinitely, instead of withdrawing as Georgia and other countries demand.
For the time being at least, President Eduard Shevardnadze and most of his ministers–with one or two notable exceptions–adhere to the established policy of nonuse of force and working through intermediaries to keep the situation from exploding (Roundup based on recent reporting by Prime-News, Kavkasia-Press, Georgian radio and television, Apsnypress (Sukhumi), Azg and Russian agencies; see the Monitor, February 13, May 30, July 11.)
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