Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Georgia: Pankisi Locals Slam Police Operation
We parked the car outside the mosque in Duisi, a village just inside Georgia's troubled north-eastern Pankisi Gorge region. Our guide got out to talk to a man in his mid-thirties who told him that Ruslan Galaev, the notorious Chechen commander, has been there the night before.
Gelaev and 600 or so Chechen fighters have used the Pankisi as a fall-back position for their campaigns in Chechnya over the last three years. Their presence is the source of tensions between Russia and Georgia, with Moscow repeatedly urging Tbilisi to root out the rebels who first crossed into the region three years ago.
Georgia, eager not to get embroiled in the Chechen problem, avoided the issue by denying the presence of the fighters here. However, a couple of months ago, during a thaw in relations with Moscow, Tbilisi admitted that the insurgents were sheltering in the region.
And in the last few weeks, the authorities have launched a police operation to deal with the Chechens and the criminals operating in the gorge.
Pankisi has been wrested from Tbilisi in recent years by increasingly powerful warlords, who control a burgeoning drugs and weapons trade, and the introduction of the Chechen rebels.
"If any shot is fired in Pankisi, Georgia will find itself involved in another Caucasus war," said one interior ministry official, referring to the likely outcome of a Georgian push to restore law and order in the area.
Violence has already broken out. Police clashed with an armed gang in the village of Zemo Khalatsani during a January 20 raid. They made one arrest that night - the only one so far in an operation that started in earnest a few days before. Which makes Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze's comments about the success of the campaign somewhat premature.
Indeed, locals are unimpressed. On January 28, 4000 people in Akhmeta, close to the gorge, protested on the streets demanding that the interior and state security ministries take more decisive action over the criminals they say are ruining their lives.
This marks a turning point in local opinion. Normally content to live away from the gaze of the authorities in Tbilisi, the inhabitants of Pankisi have been horrified at the escalation of drug use and addiction which is affecting so many of the youth here.
We entered Pankisi at Georgian ministry checkpoints newly set up 15 km inside the gorge in an attempt to establish a firmer presence in the area. But it is doubtful just how effective the border guards really are.
They are extremely unlikely, for instance, to catch Chechen rebels red-handed, as they never carry weapons when they move in and out of Georgia, according to a parliamentary expert on the Caucasus in Tbilisi.
At first sight nothing seems to be out of the ordinary as you enter the gorge. We drove slowly from one village to the next - our guide stopping every hundred metres or so to talk to people he knew and swap news. A lot of people were just shooting the breeze at the side of the road, playing backgammon and cards.
"Please, make yourself at home," said our guide's mother at her home in Duisi before welcoming us inside. Soon, the table was filled with chicken dishes, cheese, vegetables and homemade bread. The women served and the men ate. Females take second sitting.
The men started to tell us about life in the region - how things had gone from bad to worse over the years. The farmers' lot in this mountainous region has never been easy and there has never been enough good pastureland to go around.
When several thousand displaced Chechens appeared in 1999 things got tougher. Their arrival brought unwanted attention to the lawless region where criminality flourished thanks in part at least, some suspect, to the involvement of the authorities.
Locals believe some officials in Tbilisi were directly connected with smuggling and kidnappings. The only road into Pankisi, they say, is controlled by Georgian forces and it is this road which is used to bring guns, drugs and kidnap victims in and out of the region.
"People who are kidnapped in Tbilisi are brought in here," said one old man. "There are some local 'business men' who are involved with the police and they help with hiding the hostages."
The task of the Georgian police is going to be difficult enough, but if it turns out that some Tbilisi officials are in league with the Chechens and the criminals there can be little hope of the law and order campaign succeeding.
Giorgi Nemsadze is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi
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