Georgia has restricted access to the Pankisi Gorge, as security forces launch what some officials term "proper operational measures" to bring the lawless region firmly back under government control. The Pankisi operation, Georgian officials hope, will defuse escalating tension with Russia. But Moscow has not given any indication that it will ease pressure on Tbilisi.
Authorities announced September 2 that only local residents and properly documented Chechen refugees are now allowed to enter the gorge, which is being patrolled by about 2,500 troops drawn from Georgia's defense, interior and state security ministries. Journalists must now receive permission from Georgian law enforcement agencies to enter the area.
Launched August 25 in response to Russian pressure to contain a threat posed by Chechen fighters [for background see the Eurasia Insight archives], the security operation has reestablished Tbilisi's authority in the Pankisi Gorge's towns and settlements. The second phase of the operation aims to pinpoint the locations of suspected criminal elements and Chechen fighters. Georgian intelligence chief Avtandil Ioseliani said August 31 that up to 160 armed Chechen separatists are at large in the Pankisi.
Security Ministry spokesperson Nika Laliashvili said that after a review of the latest intelligence, government forces would move to arrest suspects. Laliashvili also voiced hope that the operation could result in the release of several high-profile kidnap victims, including British banker Peter Shaw [for background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"At present, the situation in the Pankisi Gorge is fully under control," Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said during his weekly radio interview September 2. "Law-enforcement agencies are conducting normal operational work."
Since the start of the Pankisi operation, Georgian law enforcement agents have taken only a handful of individuals into custody. Among those detained is a French citizen of Moroccan descent, identified as Khaled Oldal, who is being detained on suspicion of affiliation with a terrorist organization. A State Security Ministry spokesman said a preliminary investigation had found that Oldal might have been a member of "the entourage of a well-known Chechen field commander," the Prime-News agency reported. There is additional evidence that indicated the suspect had contact with a "fairly well-known" international terrorist organization, the news agency said.
So far, the Pankisi operation has not mollified Moscow. Russian leaders continue to question Georgia's commitment to containing Chechen separatists. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. On September 1, Russia's prosecutor's office condemned Georgian authorities for failing to extradite 13 suspected Chechen fighters now in Tbilisi's custody. The Interfax news agency quoted Russian Deputy Prosecutor Sergei Fridinsky as saying his Georgian counterparts had offered "different pretexts, which are often far-fetched," for not handing over the Chechens.
Georgian officials have maintained that hardliners in Moscow's defense establishment have been acting independently of the country's political leadership, aiming to destabilize Georgia in order to bolster Russia's strategic influence in the Caucasus. Meanwhile, Shevardnadze claimed August 31 that his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, "has a sincere desire to normalize Russian-Georgian relations," the Itar-Tass news agency reported. So far, however, Putin reportedly had not responded to two diplomatic letters dispatched by the Georgian leader in August.
The Georgian leadership has resisted Moscow's intense pressure to sanction joint Georgian-Russian security operations in Pankisi. Tbilisi is attempting not to antagonize civilians in the Pankisi area, many of whom are ethnic Chechens Kists. Georgian Interior Minister Koba Narchemashvili stressed that Georgian troops would not engage in so-called "sweep operations," like those practiced by the Russian federal troops in Chechnya. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archives]. Desiring to avoid what some have termed the "Chechenization" of the Pankisi region, Security Ministry officials announced September 2 that their ministry would undertake a buy-back program designed to get civilians to hand in illegal weapons in return for cash payments.
Narchemashvili told Georgian television August 30 that the stabilization of the Pankisi Gorge will take time. "What is being done today is just a drop in the ocean compared with what still needs to be done," Narchemashvili said.
Although Georgian leaders are quick to portray the Pankisi operation to date as successful, domestic political conditions remain volatile. The Georgian military's actions in Pankisi have prompted nervous reactions by leaders in the country's separatist-minded territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Abkhaz authorities have been especially vocal in expressing concerns about Tbilisi's desires to renew hostilities. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. According to Interfax, Abkhaz armed units engaged in a September 1 firefight with Georgian guerrillas in the Gali District.
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.