Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 1 Issue: 12

By Zaal Anjaparidze

Last month’s dramatic hostage taking in Moscow will probably lead to a renewal of Russian offensives in the Caucasus, and the Pankisi valley in northern Georgia is a likely target for their retributions.

Some Russian officials and media outlets allege that the Chechen squad might have come to Moscow directly from the Pankisi region. The hostagetaking at the Nord Est theater happened to coincide with the conclusion of a month-long antiterrorist and anticriminal round-up operation carried out in Pankisi by Georgian forces, whose purpose was to cleanse the region of Chechen military formations.

In the course of this year the Pankisi valley has repeatedly surfaced as a bone of Moscow-Tbilisi contention. Russia alleges that the region is used as a reserve base by Chechen terrorist groups, a charge Georgia hotly disputes. But many neutral observers question whether Georgian authorities are fully in control there.

During June and July, before the antiterror operation, several groups of Chechen militants had left Pankisi for Russia. That was evidently a gesture of good will towards Georgia and its government. According to reliable sources, however, several groups, including some non-Chechen militants from other Islamic states and North Caucasian republics, remained in Pankisi and were intent on spending winter there.

In recent months the situation in Pankisi has been the focus of an intensifying information war in both Russian and Georgian media outlets. The information circulating is contradictory and controversial. This could be an intentional move on the part of officials in Tbilisi to disorient the public and confuse outside interests. Diverse countries, organizations, groups, political figures and personalities have been intertwined in this small Georgian region of which even many Georgians had not been aware three years ago.

At his regular press briefing on October 21, President Eduard Shevardnadze disavowed self-confident statements his interior and security ministers had made just three weeks earlier, statements that assured the domestic and international community that Pankisi had been purged of Chechens and other militants. Although most had left Georgia, some–Shevardnadze admitted–remained in Pankisi. But, he added, “I have given a special assignment to the respective bodies to ensure that no single militant should remain in this area.” This almost sensational statement, wittingly or unwittingly, implicitly accused the ministers of negligence and dilettantism.

According to reliable information from both official and independent sources, the start of antiterrorist and anticriminal operation in Pankisi became possible only after Chechen militants left the region, and that only after long and difficult negotiations between militant commanders and Georgian officials. Prior to the antiterror operation, Avtandil Jorbenadze, state minister of Georgia, went for a formal working trip to the northern region of Georgia, including Pankisi. This informal but most important part of the trip was to deliver a message from Tbilisi to the Chechen militants: Leave the region. At a government meeting in Tbilisi on July 31 Shevardnadze had aired the same message: “Now things are moving on and the Chechen armed groups know that they must leave Georgian territory by this fall,” he said.

Some of the militants, however, interpreted the message as best suited them. They left the zone of antiterror operations, but only temporarily, and only to avoid a large-scale armed clash with the Georgian military. They wanted to preserve good relations with Georgia and keep open the possibility of returning to Pankisi in the future. Open conflict was thus ruled out. Pankisi is a relatively safe transshipment point. It is also practical as a military camp, convenient for feeding the rebellion in Chechnya. The well-known Chechen field commander Ruslan Gelaev, whom the Pankisi has been hosting for a long time, was quite honest in referring to the region as “The Chechen Sanatorium.”

Meanwhile, Georgian security forces were also reluctant and fearful to enter into open hostilities with the well-armed and experienced Chechen militants, which could have led to outcomes unfavorable for Georgia and Shevardnadze’s government. This is probably behind the first phase of the antiterrorist operation in Pankisi, a phase conducted with a view to minimizing the likelihood of casualties, and which brought minimal results. This bred a natural suspicion that the entire operation was primarily for appearances, serving political rather than security goals.

Isa Muradov, a Chechen militant wounded after a skirmish with Georgian policemen on September 12, managed to escape from a heavily guarded Georgian hospital two days later and slip safely through all check posts in and around Pankisi. Police Colonel Avtandil Turkiashvili, who was arrested on the orders of the interior minister for culpable negligence in Muradov’s escape, said that he had been ordered to free the detained Chechen and let him leave Pankisi. That was further oblique evidence of clandestine dealings between some Georgian senior law enforcement officials and Chechen militants in Pankisi.