Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Chechen Authorities Come On Side To Free Georgia's Hostages Of Fortune

The chaos in Chechnya is spreading over the border into Georgia as armed gangs turn to kidnap to raise foreign money for weapons.
By David Paichadze
In 1998 the Tbilisi art gallery TMS won funding from the Qartu foundation to organise three exhibitions by some of Georgia's most talented young artists. The third and last of the series was scheduled for last November, featuring the work of the 25-year-old artist Giorgi Zaalishvili.



That was when it was announced that he had been kidnapped two months previously, was being held somewhere in lawless Chechnya and that his kidnappers were demanding a $150,000 ransom from his family. The exhibition went ahead, bringing wide publicity to his plight but Zaalishvili stayed a hostage.



But the case also highlighted the links that still remain between people on both sides of the Chechen-Georgian border, and the risks of these contacts.



For Giorgi and his brother Soso had a regular business relationship with Chechen partners - Soso was a Georgian representative of the Chechen-Press information agency.



The two brothers often visited Chechnya, usually safely. But when called to a business meeting in the Georgian border village of Duisi, their partners turned on them and kidnapped them both. Until the art exhibition, Soso and his family held silent, only informing the Ministry of State Security (MSS) in Georgia and requesting a news blackout in the case.



MSS promised to arrange for Zaalishvili's release, but in the two months before the exhibition broke the story, nothing was done. Instead the head of the MSS Anti-Terrorist Department, Giorgi Alexidze, resigned amid rumours of disputes with the new minister in charge, and talk that the Zaalishvili case had played a part in his departure.



The Zaalishvili family also had to endure regular rumours that the brothers had simply got in too deep with Chechen criminals and had paid the price.



Russian allegations that Georgian traders were supplying Chechen and Dagestani rebels with arms further fed the row. The Georgian police and the head of the Caucasian Peoples' Coordination Unit in the Georgian parliament, Mamuka Areshidze, say it is an international problem, and maintain that the snatches are the work of international groups. Chechens, Ingushs, Ossetians and Georgians all play a part, they say.



But pressure is rising on the Georgina MSS to take a lead - and their workload is increasing. Since February 1999 the kidnappers have become ever more active, with reports of seizures reaching the several dozens by June 1999.



The agency's failure to bring results has brought the criticism instead.



Former hostages, whose friends and families have paid tens of thousands of dollars for their release, accuse the law enforcement community of simply closing the files on the cases once the hostages are freed. Shota Elizbarashvili's family paid $60,000 in ransom after he spent eight months in captivity last summer. He said a detective from the Vake district of Tbilisi only contacted him months after his freedom, and then only to tell him that the police were not proceeding with the case and that no one would be brought to justice for his kidnapping.



Critics of the MSS say the agency does nothing, bar issue general warnings against visiting the Northern Caucasus in general and Chechnya in particular. More effective assistance tends to come from the other side of the border. On August 28 this year, Chechens released seven Georgian hostages, Giga Zaalishvili among them, thanks to the decisive intervention of the Chechen vice-president Vakha Arsanov.



Arsanov - who now leads the defence of Grozny against the 58th Russian Army, now blasting the Chechen steppe - was able to visit Georgia in peace for major spinal surgery last summer. He also has contacts with MSS Intelligence Committee chairman Avtandil Ioseliani, dating back to February 1998 when the two met during the Georgian's investigation into a possible Chechen link to an assassination attempt on the life of Georgian president Shevardnadze.



Interestingly the operation on Arsanov was carried out by Ioseliani's surgeon brother, and far as is known Arsanov did not pay for it. As Shevardnadze later noted, Arsanov responded with kindness to kindness.



But since tales of kindness would hardly soften the hearts of the kidnappers, Arsanov had to use force. Four Georgian hostages were reportedly released in one armed operation that cost the lives of five Chechen police and six kidnappers, though all details of the raid, including the names of the free, have been suppressed.



More armed operations were threatened, and the kidnappers decided to peacefully release other Georgians in their custody - Giorgi Zaalishvili, Giorgi Suares-Inashvili, David Dekanosidze, Michael Chabukiani, Avtandil Akhvlediani, and two others named only as Gogishvili and Magularia.



Areshidze says the method did the trick, but won Arsanov some mortal enemies in Chechnya. The kidnappers later killed two Chechens; it seems to restore the gang's honour in the wake of the handover.



According to the Georgian side, no ransom was paid, but one source suggested that a 'discount' fee of $30,000 - marked down from the four million originally asked for the six men, excluding Zaalishvili - was paid by Arsanov.



There are an estimated 30 organised kidnap gangs across the republic, beyond the control of Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov's government. Last October four foreign phone engineers were abducted by a group of 20 armed men in the capital Grozny before being killed and decapitated. Four members of one gang were arrested in Grozny on Wednesday after a gun battle with police, as they attempted to grab another Chechen-Press employee.



Observers suggest that Arsanov took on the burden of freeing the hostages, and with it the dangerous antipathy of the kidnap gangs, for domestic and international political reasons. Ioseliani describes Arsanov as one of the most sensible members of the Chechen government, striving for a better relationship with Georgia.



Relations between the two were strained by the role of Chechen irregular forces in the conflict over the breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia. At the same time many North Caucasians, Chechens among them, have businesses in Georgia, which - sometimes legally, sometimes not - receive favourable treatment from the Georgian authorities.



With Russia squeezing them from the north, the owners of these businesses are interested in maintaining the status quo as much as possible.



As to the former hostages themselves, they keep quiet about their experiences, except Giorgi Zaalishvili, who has explained how he would be regularly moved from one hiding place to another during his year in captivity. He often found himself well treated, especially when kept in Grozny. Locked in a Grozny attic, with electronic tripwires to keep him in place, he says, he was given paint and canvas to continue his artwork. "I couldn't even think of an escape - I was wearing handcuffs even when I was painting," Giorgi told IWPR. "My paintings were probably sold, or maybe given to somebody as a gift. I spent month and a half this way and finished about twenty paintings." Sometimes the handcuffs came off when the kidnappers wanted a sparring partner for wrestle and boxing. They were particularly fascinated by his long study of the Shotokan Karate-do martial art. The kidnappers often allowed him to exercise two or three hours a day, and a certain amount of skills sharing went on.



"I didn't know wrestling or boxing before then, but I had to learn," he said. "My knowledge of street-fighting was more useful for me in Chechnya, than karate" Today Zaalishvili continues to campaign for the release of other hostages in Chechnya. Officially there are more than a dozen still in custody there.



Unofficially the total is thought to be much higher.



David Paichadze is a correspondent of Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe in Tbilisi.