Georgian security forces are planning a campaign to reassert government authority in the Pankisi Gorge, after officials recently acknowledged the presence of Chechen separatists in the region. The outcome of the Pankisi campaign - an area that has become synonymous with lawlessness - could have critical implications for the viability of President Eduard Shevardnadze's administration.
The Georgian government is facing growing external and domestic pressure to address the Pankisi Gorge issue. Russia, which is itself struggling to reestablish its control over neighboring Chechnya, wants Tbilisi to crack down in Pankisi in order to hinder the flow of separatists and materiel into the renegade Russian province. Georgian citizens, meanwhile, are eager to bring an end to the rampant hostage taking and livestock rustling in the region.
The Pankisi crackdown poses a critical test for Georgia's new ministers of interior and state security. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Popular accusations that law enforcement bodies were involved in criminal dealings in Pankisi helped fuel protests that culminated in the collapse of the Georgian government in November 2001.
Shevardnadze criticized Minister of Interior Kakha Narchemashvili and Minister of State Security Valeri Khaburdzania during a January 9 government session for taking "inadequate" measures to address lawlessness. As a result, Narchemashvili and Khaburdzania staged a high-profile visit to the Pankisi region. On January 11, Khaburdzania announced the government would conduct special operations to eradicate drug and arms dealings. At the same time, Narchemashvili announced a ban on negotiations with kidnappers, which many observers interpreted as a declaration of war against hostage takers.
The Pankisi Gorge, a mountainous area in northeastern Georgia, gained notoriety after authorities admitted 7,000 Chechen refugees in 1999. Since then, Moscow has exerted continuous pressure on Georgia to crack down on the movements of Chechen separatists. And since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Georgia has also come under US pressure to curb lawlessness in Pankisi. Western observers assert that the presence of Chechen fighters in Georgia undermines the country's security.
Georgian officials' current resolve in Pankisi reflects concerns that the crime problem can perhaps escalate to inter-ethnic violence. Pankisi is populated by Kists, ethnic Chechens of Georgian citizenship who escaped "cleansing" by the Russian Empire in early 19th Century. Kists have adopted some Georgian traditions and even family names, but they also have maintained cultural links with their ethnic kin in Chechnya. This cultural bond was a major reason Chechen refugees settled in the Pankisi.
A closer examination of trends in the Pankisi region shows that crime rates began growing in the early 1990s, as Georgia was buffeted by general unrest and secessionist conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Geographically isolated from the rest of the country, security in the Pankisi Gorge was largely neglected as Shevardnadze's government struggled to contain higher-priority security threats. Over the past decade, the Pankisi Gorge emerged as a haven for criminals. Its proximity to Chechnya helped the region develop into a major route for arms and drug trafficking.
Some observers say that it was only during the late 1990s that ties developed between law enforcement officials and entrenched criminal barons in the Pankisi Gorge. The influx of Chechen refugees served as a political fuse that called attention to the security situation in Pankisi. The influx of Chechen warlords upset the criminal hierarchy in Pankisi and touched off feuds among rival gangs. Initial instances of kidnapping were, some observers say, linked to criminal infighting.
Russia's consistent pressure helped expose the crisis of governance in Pankisi. Since the outbreak of the second Chechen War, Russian officials have utilized the Pankisi Gorge situation to damage Georgia's international image, and to gain leverage over Tbilisi in negotiations on the withdrawal of Russian forces from the country. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In recent years, crime caused tension between the Chechen and Georgian communities to rise to dangerous levels in Pankisi. In July 2001, the gorge found itself on the brink of armed confrontation among vigilante groups. Intervention by community elders and, reportedly, some Chechen warlords defused the tensions. Meanwhile, the Georgian press assailed the inaction of law enforcement bodies.
Tension rose again January 7, when a group of Georgian Afghan War veterans established a checkpoint at the entry to Pankisi to demand the release of kidnap victims. Local Georgian officials joined the protest demanding better law enforcement.
President Shevardnadze, who has seen his prestige damaged by the Pankisi situation, now seems determined to provide resolute political support for the anti-crime campaign in the area. Khaburdzania and Narchemashvili traveled to Moscow on January 14 to discuss the Pankisi offensive. Some experts suggested Russia might be willing to share intelligence that could assist in the anti-crime offensive.
Even limited success in Pankisi should be enough to enhance the shattered image of the Georgian law enforcement, and bolster the Shevardnadze government's dwindling ratings. But any armed involvement in Pankisi is a high-risk operation, requiring elaborate diplomacy and compromise with local Kist and Georgian leaders, and among Chechen refugees. Several observers say that success in the anti-crime operation will not be sufficient to stabilize the Pankisi Gorge. For that, anti-crime efforts must be accompanied by long-term development programs that aim to create a sound economic infrastructure for local residents, they say.
Jaba Devdariani is a Founding Director of the UN Association of Georgia (www.una.org.ge) and editor of Civil Georgia (www.civil.ge) - Internet magazine offering civil view on life in Georgia.