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Shevardnadze's High Risk Game In Pankisi

The decision to send Georgian security and police forces into the Pankisi Gorge may have been unavoidable, but it carries serious risks.
By Jaba Devdariani

Caught between Russia's aggressive policy towards his country and rising domestic discontent, Georgia's president, Eduard Shevardnadze, has launched a security crackdown in the lawless Pankisi Gorge region - but this show of strength barely conceals his real weaknesses.

It was hard for Shevardnadze not to react to apparent Russian military incursions onto Georgian territory. Since July 29, "unidentified" warplanes and gunship helicopters have violated Georgian airspace five times, culminating in a bombing raid on August 23 when one villager was killed and eight were wounded.

Russian defence minister Sergei Ivanov has publicly demanded that Russia be given the right to send its troops directly into the Pankisi to clear out Chechen militants.

Moscow is manipulating "Georgia's internal weakness and uncertainty," said Gia Nodia, director of the influential think-tank, the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development.

At the same time, domestic discontent over government inability to withstand pressure from Russia was growing. "The government is always capitulating when Russia pressures us," said university student Irakli Dvali, reflecting the public mood. "I do not want to feel humiliated by Russia any more."

In response, Shevardnadze told the Russian military to "stop hunting" in Georgian villages and sent in his own police and security troops to combat the criminals. On August 25, a massive security operation began in the Pankisi. More than six hundred interior ministry troops went into the gorge itself, while 1,500 regular soldiers conducted field exercises just outside it.

By doing so, Shevardnadze made a public show of military capability and his determination to crack down on criminals, but the decision has set in motion a train of potentially risky and damaging events.

The main headache for Georgia's law enforcers and politicians is to avoid trouble in the ethnically mixed Pankisi gorge itself. The locals have been accommodating to the Georgian interior troops, mainly because the Chechen refugees there are horrified at the prospect of any Russian military involvement.

Yet hidden behind the welcoming remarks to visiting Georgian officials is a mixture of annoyance and resignation. "We are tired of all this," said 22-year-old Madina in Akhmeta, the town at the head of the gorge. "We are refugees, and we like we are rabbits in a scientific experiment."

The Pankisi Gorge is home to a mixed population of ethnic Georgians, Kists (who are ethnically Chechen and whose ancestors came to the region in the 19th century) and recent refugees from the war in Chechnya. The suspected Chechen fighters - and an unknown number of foreign Islamic militants linked to al-Qaeda - have been taking shelter amongst the latter group.

For the last three years, these militants have helped give the Pankisi a reputation for kidnapping, drug-dealing and arms-trading, and made it a virtual no-go area for the police force.

Georgian interior minister Koba Narchemashvili believes it is vital to maintain the support of the local community for the anti-criminal operation. According to some experts, that also means that the Georgian authorities will shrink from taking on any serious Chechen military groups or commanders.

By the end of the first week of the campaign, only one non-Georgian militant, an Arab with a French passport, had been arrested.

The US think-tank STRATFOR slammed the Georgian operation in Pankisi on August 29, calling it "toothless" and saying it "will benefit only al-Qaeda and its local Islamist allies".

And the action has caused alarm in Georgia's breakaway regions. Eduard Kokoyev, the president of the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, worried over the Georgian military deployment, traveled to Moscow for talks at the foreign ministry. Officials in Abkhazia declared on August 27 that, "the Georgian authorities' actions give grounds to assume that they are preparing new aggression against Abkhazia," while members of radical Armenian party "Virk" in Georgia's Samtskhe-Javakheti province also voiced their concerns.

An escalation of trouble in any of these regions could be disastrous for Georgia. Shevardnadze has the consolation that so far - unusually for Georgia's recent history - he has broad popular support for his actions. This is mainly because of widespread public outrage at the bombing raids.

But it looks as though he will retain this backing only if the Pankisi action goes smoothly. To be successful at this stage, the operation should be high profile, with low-casualties and deliver some short-term tangible results.

These could include the release of some of the hostages rumoured to be held there, and the sources at the interior ministry have already pinpointed two of them: the British banker Peter Shaw and the Orthodox monk Father Basili.

Currently, the nationalist opposition, while urging the president to take more radical action, cannot afford to be too critical of him. As Gia Nodia points out, "The opposition is in a difficult situation, as pressure Shevardadze under current circumstances would be perceived by the public as an irresponsible jockeying for political positions."

But if the crackdown fails to deliver results or incurs large numbers of Georgian casualties, the nationalists may win more popular support again.

The authorities can afford to proceed slowly with their operation. When the first snow falls in the mountains, it will close the passes into Chechnya, giving the security forces a free hand until the spring.

A visibly successful operation will help Georgia to shake off the image of a failed state, incapable of dealing with internal or external threats. It would improve country's image abroad, and help Shevardnadze garner essential political support before next year's parliamentary elections.

But the outcome is more or less out of the hands of Georgia's politicians. They must rely on good luck and the military and hope for the best.

Jaba Devdariani is editor of Civil Georgia ( Civil Georgia's Revaz Bakhtadze contributed to this report from Akhmeta.