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

Georgian Border Strife

The current escalation in crime in northeast Georgia could fuel renewed conflict in the region.
By Jaba Devdariani

Tensions are reported to be easing in the Kakheti region of northeast Georgia following the resolution of a tit-for-tat hostage-taking crisis. "The trouble in the Pankisi Gorge has been resolved to the satisfaction of both sides," Georgian interior ministry officials commented last week.

Seven Chechens who had been taken hostage by local Georgian paramilitaries were exchanged for two locals, just as violence in one of country's most unstable corners threatened to spiral out of control. The kidnappings once again focused attentions on this border region - a virtually lawless area whose problems have been exacerbated the arrival of Chechen refugees.

The Pankisi Gorge is so unstable these days that it could easily slip out of Tbilisi's control. It first hit the headlines after the Georgian government agreed to shelter 7000 refugees during an escalation in the Chechen conflict in 1999. Then, attention concentrated on the humanitarian response at the expense of the security considerations. Today, it is the latter making the front pages.

The root of the problems of the Pankisi region lies with its precarious socio-political and ethnic balance. The wave of post-Soviet criminal activity and arrival of Chechen refugees only served to exacerbate existing problems. It was to this area that Chechens fled Russian incursions into Caucasian territory more than a century ago. Since then, most have been successfully assimilated. Known as Kists, these ethnic-Chechens are the largest community in the gorge.

When the Georgian government was forced to make a decision on the settlement of the Chechen refugees in late 1999, Pankisi was chosen as an obvious location due to the kinship ties between the Chechens. After their arrival, authority all but broke down in the face of spiralling criminal activity.

The Pankisi also poses serious external problems. Russian officials have repeatedly accused Tbilisi of harbouring Chechen terrorists and even hosting terrorist training camps in the area. There are frequent allusions in the Russian media to 'joint military operations' between Georgian and Chechen forces.

Georgian border guards chief General Valeri Chkheidze acknowledges that some Chechen fighters may have entered the gorge with the wave of refugees, but he insists their number never reached more than 150, in stark contrast to media reports which estimate the real figure is ten times greater.

What is clear, however, is that Georgian law enforcement agencies are failing to curb sky-rocketing crime in the area, especially drug-trafficking and kidnapping, which are increasingly associated with criminal groupings operating from the gorge.

What made the recent kidnapping episode so distinct was the appearance of unofficial paramilitary groups. Villagers demanded that action was taken after the abduction of two locals earlier in July. They took the law into their own hands by kidnapped seven Chechens. "We cannot tolerate our lives being in constant danger," said one of the armed volunteers. " We never feel safe when our wives or children go out at night."

Given the widespread availability of firearms in the gorge, the government risks violent conflict with the criminal gangs if its security forces go in too hard. Military units based in the region have so far been remarkably restrained, leaving the 'volunteer groups' to deal with the criminals.

Some observers believe that Georgia is waiting for the situation to worsen so as to have an excuse for reversing its refugee policy and removing Chechens from the region.

According to some sources, interior minister Kakha Targamadze had hoped that the recent kidnapping crisis would culminate in popular demand for just such a move. But even if there were such calls, Tbilisi would be reluctant to expel the Chechens as this would surely provoke an international outcry.

The current trouble may have been resolved, but it has yet again exposed the lawlessness of the area - for which there are no easy remedies.

Jaba Devdariani is a board member of the UN Association of Georgia.