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

Georgia's Pankisi Dilemma

A much-awaited police operation has begun in the Pankisi Gorge - but will it achieve anything?
By Jaba Devdariani

The Georgian authorities say they have begun a crackdown on crime in the lawless Pankisi Gorge near the border with Chechnya - but so far the politics of the operation loom larger than its results.


Violence flared in the gorge in the mountainous north-east of Georgia on January 20, as police made their first attempt to impose order in the region. In the village of Zemo Khalatsani, unidentified gunmen wounded two local men, who were helping the police arrest a suspected criminal.


The Georgian interior ministry signalled its intent to move into the gorge in mid-January. The police moved checkpoints 15 km further up the mountainous roads, strengthening their presence in the region. They then arrested four suspected criminals. Georgia's president, Eduard Shevardnadze, hailed the start of the operation as a success in his weekly national radio interview on January 21.


The Pankisi Gorge is Georgia's biggest security headache. It is home not only to around 7,000 refugees from Chechnya, who fled Russia's military intervention in 1999-2000, but also, allegedly, to hundreds of Chechen fighters.


Moscow angrily accused Tbilisi of allowing the latter to take refuge in Georgia and has demanded the right to deploy its own troops in the Pankisi Gorge - a request that the Georgian authorities have steadfastly refused.


Until late last year, the Georgians were able to avoid taking any action in the gorge by insisting that they were only meeting their international humanitarian obligations to Chechen refugees. But they were also storing up political trouble for themselves. "It is difficult to say today whether admitting Chechen refugees was a humanitarian act or a political mistake," said Soso Tsintsadze, political analyst and dean of the Georgian Diplomatic Academy. "No long term vision was employed in taking these decisions."


Domestic pressure to clean up the region has grown over the last two years since it became notorious as a centre of crime, drug-trafficking and a series of high-profile kidnappings.


More recently, international pressure on Georgia has increased since the September 11 attacks in the United States. "Allowing Chechen terrorists to operate in Georgia could lead to further instability, and Georgians need to take a tough look at this issue," said Zeyno Baran, an expert on Georgia at the Washington-based think-tank, CSIS.


Perhaps trying to head off this kind of criticism, President Eduard Shevardnadze surprised many observers last October by admitting the presence of Chechen guerrillas in the Pankisi Gorge and promising to deal with the problem.


The spur that finally prompted police to take action appears to have been a series of protests by local inhabitants in the region. On January 7, a group of Georgian veterans of the Soviet-Afghan war held a demonstration at the entry to the gorge, calling for an operation to free a local monk who had been kidnapped. Leaders of the Akhmeta region, where the Pankisi Gorge is situated, then added their complaints. They threatened to resign if the central government did not take action against the criminals.


The operation has a lot to do with Tbilisi politics as well, as a clean-up of the Pankisi Gorge is an opportunity for Georgia's new two leading security officials to win political credit. Interior minister Koba Narchemashvili and national security minister Valery Khaburdzania were both appointed at the end of the last year after the entire government was changed.


Narchemashvili and Khaburdzania's predecessors were both tarnished by allegations of corruption and collusion with criminals, in the Pankisi region amongst other places. Press reports claimed that the police and security forces had shares in the drugs business. The daily tabloid the Georgian Times even asserted, "Most of the drugs confiscated by the police counter-narcotics department find their way to Pankisi."


In October last year, a large group of fighters was able to leave the gorge, cross Georgia and enter the Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia, where they were attacked by Russian forces. Most observers have concluded that the Chechens could only have travelled to Abkhazia with the collusion of the Georgian security forces.


There have also been media reports that the police have profited from the release of kidnap victims. Two Spanish businessmen, held in the Pankisi Gorge for a year, were released in December, only a few days after the two security ministers were sacked. The Spanish daily El Pais reported on December 10 that more than 300, 000 euros were handed over for their release but Georgian police officials denied the reports.


Both Narchemashvili and Khaburdzania have spoken publicly about the need to reform their ministries.


However, it seems unlikely that the new security officials will be able to achieve more than a few loud declarations and a couple of high-profile arrests in the Pankisi Gorge.


The gorge itself holds a complex social mix of Georgians, Chechen refugees and Kists (Georgian citizens of Chechen descent who left the Russian Empire in the early 19th century). The criminality of the region has its roots in the dense clan structure of the local communities, which has since been exacerbated by the influx of armed Chechens from over the border. Widespread possession of firearms makes the situation even more volatile.


While a new political consensus now exists both inside Georgia and internationally in support of a police operation in Pankisi, its problems are so deep-seated that the lawlessness is likely to persist for some time yet.


Jaba Devdariani is a founding director of the UN Association of Georgia (www.una.org.ge) and editor of Civil Georgia (www.civil.ge), an Internet magazine.