The breakaway Pankisi Gorge, in the Kakheti region of East Georgia, has attracted unwanted attention as a center of kidnapping, extortion, and the drug trade. Levan Kaladze, brother of a soccer star in Milan, was kidnapped in May 2001, and bandits abducted a monk, Father Basili Machitadze, at the Pankisi border six months later. The area has also become home to 7,000 documented Chechen refugees and a number of rebels who escaped from the Chechen conflict. This juxtaposition of rebels and criminals is hurting the Gorge's chances for stability. Some suspect that drug lords and organized criminals, aware of this effect, are working to keep refugees and bandits in the area.
The Chechen fighters' distracting presence provides cover for illegal activities by various operators, including some with ties to official Tbilisi and Moscow. The drug business is the glue that connects the breakaway regions such as South Ossetia, Abkhazia and other parts in the Northern Caucasus. Drug traffickers have moved more than 100 Georgians who fought with the Soviets in Afghanistan to agitate for tighter law enforcement in the region. Abkhazia's refugees have blocked roads into the region since January 19, furthering veterans' frustration. A January 25 shootout between Georgian security officers and Chechen refugees in Akhmeta has spurred more protest. (Russian media reported that the officers were drunk.) The combination of crime and these veterans' disruptions has led the United High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) to suspend deliveries of humanitarian aid into the gorge. It has also led lawmakers such as New Rightist Irakli Batiashvili to openly call for President Eduard Shevardnadze's resignation.
The government, responding to the veterans, has taken steps to tighten security. It sacked some key security staff who are allegedly connected to organized kidnappings (including kidnapping of foreigners), and relocated a police checkpoint to the village Dousi, 15 kilometers from Matani village. But many suspect that corruption among security services undermines these steps. Nevertheless, Georgia is now in a situation where elements in the security agencies are making easy money. Khizri Aldamov, representative of the Chechen exiles, implied in December 2001 that only a lockdown could restore peace. "If the Chechens are the sellers of drugs, then the Georgians are the buyers. Let Georgia close the Pankisi Gorge for several months and not allow anybody to enter or exit," said Aldamov.
After Father Machitadze's kidnapping, Georgians began to take up Almadov's call. The bandits who kidnapped the monk demanded one million dollars. And the investigation into the missing monk's whereabouts has foundered, prompting some gossips to brand it as a government ploy to draw attention away from such larger issues as the failed budget for 2002 or the anti-corruption campaign. Whether this notion holds water or not, the dramatic abduction strengthens Russia's case that Georgia is incapable of managing internal affairs on its own. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive.]
That notion, in the context of President Eduard Shevardnadze's stillborn anti-corruption campaign, could damage Georgian political stability. Already, Shevardnadze has moved to delay the withdrawal of Russian troops from Abkhazia and to side step the issue of a Russian citizen being elected as president of Tskhinvali, another breakaway region in South Ossetia. (That region is also frayed. On January 28, masked attackers reportedly beat three Russian peacekeepers and stole their Kalashnikovs, though apparently merely for criminal rather than political purposes.)
The Georgian Parliament, meanwhile, is making political hay from the unrest in the Pankisi Gorge. It has called for banishing Russian peacekeepers or rewriting their mandate. Implicitly, Parliament could squeeze the president by investigating and exposing corrupt activity among Georgian security forces in the area. Nugzar Nazgaidze, a resident of the village of Matani, said in a January 19, 2002 interview: "the drug business is in the hands of the local police and anyone arrested is quickly freed by just one phone call to a well placed member of the Parliament from Tbilisi."
And the Afghan veterans may have as much to gain from chaos as the drug lords. Valeri Khaburdzania, Georgian Minister of State Security, visited Pankisi the second week of January to take a closer look. He said that the situation on the ground is far more difficult than how it appears from his office in Tbilisi. Khaburdzania stressed the need to address the drug problem and lawlessness "in increments," giving the veterans a position to loudly oppose.
The Union of Afghan Veterans and other groups are demanding the freeing of all hostages held by kidnappers and without payment or any special deals. Moreover, they want Georgian sovereignty re-established in the region. This group has increasing political pull. Shevardnadze met with the group on January 18 and nodded to their demands in a recent radio address, saying their goal would be "achievable" and citing the police-station relocation as "an important first step." Meanwhile, a kindred group called the Veterans of Georgian Armed Formations announced to Interfax on January 26 that it intended to set up a presence in the Kodori Gorge.
In a country where some estimates peg the black market as three times the size of the official economy, though, anyone who survives the Pankisi Gorge must live with the suspicion of having bought freedom - either from a Mafia, from a corrupt police force, or both. Since no deal was ever announced in the freeing of two Spanish businessmen, Jose Antonio Tremino and Francisco Rodriguez, some suspect that the men's relatives paid ransom twice: first to security services, then to the kidnappers. Shevardnadze promised on January 29 that some Chechen refugees had begun to return home. Until such statements provoke more confidence among Georgian loyalists, the Pankisi gorge will continue to spill unrest into official Tbilisi.
Jeffrey Silverman is a senior writer for the Georgian Times, an English-language newspaper in Tbilisi.