Prodding Georgia

by Nathan Hamm on 1/18/2005 · 5 comments

Russia has again accused Georgia of harboring terrorists. And, they’re pretty specific about how many terrorists there are and where in the Pankisi Gorge they are located.

…one group of Chechen rebels, consisting of 200 fighters, is based in the villages of Duisi and Khalatsani of Pankisi gorge, which is located in Georgia’s north-eastern mountainous region near the Russian border. While the second group – consisting of up to 50 militants – is based in the northern part of the gorge, in the village of Omalo.

According to Russia’s Counter-Terrorism Operations Center, there is a third, 30-strong group of militants, consisting mainly of foreign mercenaries, “speaking Turkish,” near the village of Birkiani. The report also indicated the names – Abu Atiya and Abu Rabiya – of those persons who are allegedly the commanders of the foreign mercenaries in Pankisi. No information about Abu Rabiya is available; however, the name of Abu Atiya first emerged in 2003, when U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell cited Abu Atiya as the leader of the Al-Qaida terrorist network’s Pankisi cell while speaking at a UN Security Council session.

Georgia denies Russia’s charges, saying the Gorge is under complete control. Russia counters by saying that fighters disperse when monitors make sweeps through their villages and return when it is safe.

I’m fairly agnostic on the issue. Given the inability of the Georgian government to assert control over much of its territory, Chechens taking refuge in Pankisi makes sense. And, one can’t help but think Georgia probably can’t care too much about a situation that makes life more difficult for Russia considering Russia’s creeping annexation of Georgian territory.

At the same time though, it’s rather hard to sympathize with Russia on this when just about every step it has taken in the region over the past few months indicates that Russia is as equally if not more concerned with asserting control over its neighbors as it is with minimizing the threat of Chechen rebels. Threatening to attack terrorist targets in Georgia and dismantling the OSCE border monitoring mission are probably the worst ways to inspire confidence. It’s not as if Georgia is enthusiastic about Islamist terrorism in the Caucasus.

I’m sure that were Russia solely interested in fighting terrorism and not dominating its neighbors, it might respond positively to proposals like this and not get so bent out of shape about weak neighbors having better-trained military forces (and hey, why should Georgia be bound by an agreement like that any more than Russia should be bound by its CFE troop-withdrawal obligations?). It’s also not terribly constructive to appoint a Russian citizen* as South Ossetia’s Defense Minister.

I don’t give Georgia’s government the grief it probably deserves. But, it’s really hard to do so when Russia makes their jobs so much more difficult.

*Not just a passport holder like so many other South Ossetians, but a man who formerly held a similar position in a Russian republic.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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poliko March 6, 2005 at 2:38 am

While at one time there were no doubt many militants seeking refuge in Pankisi (smuggling, training, etc.), today there are nobody but Chechen refugees and local Kists, not to mention newly trained soldiers. Chechen fighters may be hiding in some other little nook in the Georgian Caucasus but they are not in Pankisi. I have been there, I have friends who live there.

Additonally, there has never been any proof that the boogiemen from al Qaida were there as well, the trumped up rumor was just an excuse for the US to dump a shitload of money into Georgia’s army and plant themselves yet again in Russia’s sphere of influence.

Nathan March 6, 2005 at 10:36 pm

Well, I won’t shed a tear for Russia’s sphere of influence being encroached on. It’s not as if it’s a particularly healthy influence.

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