GEORGIA: PANKISI'S CHECHENS WORRY ABOUT IMPLICATIONS OF TBILISI-
Elizabeth Owen: 5/18/04
As Georgia and Russia attempt to improve relations, Chechen refugees
in the Georgia's Pankisi Gorge are reporting increased police
harassment and a growing sense of insecurity. While Tbilisi maintains
it has no intention of forcibly returning refugees to Russia,
Chechens in the Pankisi Gorge are expressing a desire to be resettled
in the West.
Chechen concerns have been spurred by a recent Russian demand that
Georgia take action to eradicate suspected Chechen militants from the
Pankisi Gorge. Many Chechens believe Georgian officials will fulfill
the demand, issued shortly before Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze's
resignation and departure for Russia, as part of a quid pro quo for
Russia's cooperation with President Mikheil Saakashvili's
administration on Ajaria.
The Pankisi has a reputation of being a lawless area, and has long
been a source of tension in Georgian-Russian relations.
Representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
believe that the increasing government scrutiny of Chechen refugees
is tied to the Saakashvili's administration's broader anti-crime
crackdown. However, this possibility has done little to assuage
"The problem is that there is a growing concern among the refugee
population about their security situation due to their feeling that
the Georgian-Russian relationship is improving," said Naveed Hussain,
the UNHCR representative to Georgia. "They think that the best option
for them, given that they cannot return home, is resettlement."
"Our position is that if there are any [Chechen militants] in the
Pankisi, any activity the government takes should not affect the
living conditions of the refugees," Hussain added.
To call attention to the growing uncertainty about their future, a
group of 60 Chechens in Pankisi started a hunger strike May 6. Their
chief demand was a government commitment to resettle them in a
Western country. Hunger strike participants asserted that local
police have been harassing the almost 3,900 Chechen refugees in
Pankisi since January, when Saakashvili assumed the presidency. Many
reported being subjected to security and documentation checks by
armed, plain clothes police. They also said Chechen men in Pankisi
are frequently arrested on flimsy charges.
In the aftermath of the May 9 assassination of Chechen President
Ahmed Kadyrov, Moscow is unlikely to ease its pressure on the
Georgian government to contain the perceived Chechen threat. "Georgia
will need to pay a price for Russia's help with Ajaria, just as
Georgia will expect to be paid a price for any action taken in the
Pankisi," said Dmitri Trenin, a senior associate at the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace in Moscow.
Although Tbilisi over the past two years has reestablished its
authority in the gorge, the area is still burdened with a reputation
as a haven for terrorists and Islamic militants. "The problem with
the Pankisi Gorge," said UNHCR assistant program director Kellie
Hynes, who works with refugees in the valley, "has always been the
threat of a problem."
Georgian officials insist that their Pankisi crackdown aims solely to
root out militants and Islamic radicals. It may be difficult,
however, to distinguish between refugees and militants, Trenin
suggested. "Some of those refugees might have ties to the rebels;
they could be their kith and kin. Or the rebels could also just be
normal people. The problem with rebels is that they live in the midst
of the population."
The OSCE has not detected any "serious crossing" of Chechen militants
into Georgia from Chechnya in the last year, Peter Marron, deputy
head of the OSCE's border patrol unit, said in a recent interview
with EurasiaNet. Monitoring, however, is not conducted in the Pankisi
On a recent visit by EurasiaNet to the main Pankisi village of Duisi,
refugees dismissed Russian reports that armed fighters still roam the
gorge. "Of course, people stood up to the Russians," said one male
refugee who declined identification. "But does that make you a
fighter when planes come and bomb your village? When OMON [special
assignment militia] comes and terrorizes your family? "
At the Kontura collective center -- a facility housing 21 refugee
families in rooms heated by coal stoves and with no indoor plumbing
or electricity -- residents said that they had one goal in mind: to
leave Georgia. "I'm willing to wait, but how long can I wait? I want
to live as a normal person, with normal food," said Khaifa, a 42-year-
old woman who lives with four children in a single room. There's one
solution, interjected Usain Izmailov, a writer. "Let Georgia bring in
two planes and take us out, and the problem will be solved."
Chechen refugees, most of whom do not speak Georgian, say they have
little chance to improve their living conditions. "If we stay in
Georgia, there's no future for our children," said Khaida Azimova,
who has been living with her husband and two children in the valley
since 1999. "The Pankisi is the poorest region of Georgia. Chechens
can live anywhere. We would go anywhere, to any region of the West."
An ongoing resettlement program so far has transferred 10 families
out of the Pankisi to various countries in Western Europe and North
America. Resettlement decisions are made on a case-by-case, and
country-by-country basis. Canada and the United States, for instance,
refuse men who were ex-fighters in either of Chechnya's two wars
(1994-1996 and 1999-present) with Russia. Scandinavian countries like
Norway have no such restrictions. Some countries only want families;
others refuse men with more than one wife.
The mass resettlement of Pankisi's Chechens has so far not been
seriously considered. "It [the existing resettlement program] is a
solution for a rather limited number of people. Everyone cannot be
resettled," Hussain said.
Editor's Note: Elizabeth Owen is a is a freelance writer specializing
in political issues in the Caucasus.
--- In firstname.lastname@example.org
, "mariuslab2002" <mariuslab@s...>
> By Khatya Chhor, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
> Prague, 19 May 2004 (RFE/RL)
> EURASIA VIEW
> Freelance journalist Elizabeth Owen, a specialist in political
> affairs in the Caucasus, says as Georgia and Russia pursue
> rapprochement, Chechen refugees in Pankisi Gorge "are reporting
> increased police harassment and a growing sense of insecurity." The
> Chechens have asked to be re-settled in the West.
> The Kremlin has recently renewed its demands that Georgia take
> against suspected Chechen militants in Pankisi. Owen says many
> Chechens believe Georgia will accede to the request "as part of a
> quid pro quo for Russia's cooperation with [Georgian] President
> Mikheil Saakashvili's administration on Ajara." Moscow refrained
> intervening as the standoff between Tbilisi and Adjara's erstwhile
> leader, Aslan Abashidze, a Kremlin ally, played out in recent
> Owen says, following the 9 May assassination of Chechnya's Russian-
> backed President Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, "Moscow is unlikely to ease
> its pressure on the Georgian government to contain the perceived
> Chechen threat."
> Tbilisi has reestablished its authority in the gorge in the past
> years, but the area "is still burdened with a reputation as a haven
> for terrorists and Islamic militants." Georgian officials "insist
> that their Pankisi crackdown aims solely to root out militants and
> Islamic radicals." But Owen remarks that Chechen rebels often live
> among, or have connections to, ordinary civilians. This makes it
> for security forces to identify the separatists and complicates
> efforts to root out militants while leaving refugees undisturbed.
> Copyright © 2004 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of
> Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington
> 20036. www.rferl.org
> DID RUSSIA AND GEORGIA MAKE A DEAL OVER AJARIA?
> A EurasiaNet commentary by Irakly Areshidze
> Aslan Abashidze's peaceful departure from power in the Georgian
> territory of Ajaria marks a significant victory President Mikheil
> Saakashvili and his effort to reunify the country. At the outset of
> the Tbilisi-Batumi confrontation, few believed that it would end
> without violence. Many were also surprised to see Russia
> with Georgia in convincing Abashidze to leave for Moscow. Some
> observers continue to wonder whether Tbilisi granted any
> to Russia in exchange for Moscow's assistance in resolving the
> As the Tbilisi-Batumi confrontation played out in early 2004,
> came close to civil war on several occasions. Given that Tbilisi
> strong legal grounds for pursuing a military option to restore
> control over Ajaria, several of Saakashvili's advisors reportedly
> pressed him to resort to force. There was a strong desire in some
> political circles in Tbilisi to demonstrate the effectiveness of
> new US-trained Georgian army units.
> At first, violence nearly broke out when Ajaria's illegal armed
> forces prevented Saakashvili from entering the region on March 14.
> [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Had it not been
> the prudent refusal of US-trained military officers to participate
> a military operation, the crisis might have taken a violent turn
> and there. The Georgian president himself sent contradictory
> on the question of an armed solution. His rhetoric was often
> confrontational, even though he several times ruled out the use of
> force. Pressure from the United States on Saakashvili's
> administration reportedly helped keep the peace during the
> Russia perhaps played an even more important role in preventing
> violence. Indeed Russia's stance on Ajaria caught many Tbilisi
> political analysts by surprise. Moscow has a reputation of being a
> meddler, rather than mediator in Georgian domestic affairs,
> frequently manipulating separatist movements in Georgia to weaken
> central government in Tbilisi. For example, during the 1992-93
> conflict in Abkhazia (another of Georgia's separatist Black Sea
> provinces), Russian military support for the separatists was
> instrumental in the Georgian defeat. During the Ajaria crisis, most
> regional analysts feared that Russia might try to protect
> In the event of a conflict, some thought Moscow might lend
> troops and weapons from the Russian military base in Batumi, or
> supply mercenaries to fight on his behalf, like it did in Abkhazia.
> Russian President Vladimir Putin confounded expectations. Instead
> trying to set Russia up as the arbiter of the Ajarian question, and
> thus increasing Moscow's leverage over Tbilisi, Putin worked with
> Saakashvili to ease Abashidze out. [For background see the Eurasia
> Insight archive]. On the surface, such action by Putin seemed to
> counter to Russia's interests in the Caucasus, as the outcome
> enhanced Georgia's sense of cohesiveness, making it harder for the
> Kremlin to exert influence over the country.
> Russia's unexpected behavior is prompting some in Tbilisi to ask
> whether a deal has been struck between Saakashvili and Putin? If
> what is the concession that Moscow obtained in return for its help
> Ajaria? The Georgian government insists no deal was made. Meanwhile
> in Moscow, Russian leaders have spoken about their alleged desire
> start a new, friendly relationship with Georgia. Officials in
> view Russia's cooperation on Abashidze as proof that Putin is
> serious. Unfortunately, this scenario sounds too good to be true.
> Russian National Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov, the man
> brokered the terms of Abashidze's exile, also served as the midwife
> for the new Georgian administration during the Rose Revolution. As
> repayment for Putin's help, after taking office Saakashvili
> backtracked on a number of longstanding Georgian positions vis-à-
> Russia. In February, while visiting Moscow, the Georgian president
> agreed to joint patrolling of the Georgian-Russian border in an
> effort to contain Chechen militant incursions. Saakashvili also
> retreated on a demand that Russia quickly close down its two
> remaining military bases on Georgian territory.
> This fall, Putin and Saakashvili hope to sign the long-delayed
> framework agreement between the two countries. This treaty would
> finally determine the future of Russian bases in Georgia. In early
> May, Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili confirmed
> that Moscow, in return for its military withdrawal, is seeking a
> guarantee that Tbilisi will not permit another foreign country to
> establish a military base on Georgian territory once Russian forces
> are gone.
> Russia has long feared that American forces will move in after
> Russian troops leave Georgia, and Moscow appears determined to do
> utmost to prevent this scenario from unfolding. Yet, it would be
> absurd for Georgia to agree to such a demand, given that such a
> commitment would undermine Tbilisi's efforts to integrate into
> Western economic, political and security structures, especially
> Some experts in Tbilisi worry that a Georgian no-US-base guarantee
> was the cost of Putin's cooperation on Ajaria. Stoking such
> is the fact that Zurabishvili did not immediately reject Russia's
> base demand during her early May visit to Moscow; instead, she
> declared that that Tbilisi needed to consider this idea.
> Editor's Note: The author is a political analyst based in
> and Tbilisi. Views expressed in this article are his own.