Pankisi Gorge – A Criminal Enclave

Law Enforcers React After Protest of the Population

Georgian law enforcers decided to apply special measures in Pankisi gorge, which had become a criminal enclave. According to the statement of the State Security Minister Valeri Khaburzania, there are up to 600 criminals in the gorge at present.

Khaburzania admits that the central government is not able to control the gorge.

Joint statement of the ministries of Interior and the State Security of January 14 says that the two ministries are launching “operative-investigative actions to free the hostages, remove firearms and eliminate drug trafficking in the gorge”.

Mass protest actions of Akhmeta district residents forced the ‘power’ ministries to act more firmly. On January 7, members of the Soviet-Afghan War Veterans Union joined relatives of the kidnapped monk Basil Machitadze. Kidnappers demand one million USD ransom for the monk. Ethnic Azeri citizen of Georgia Aziz Khalilov is kidnapped to Pankisi gorge as well.

The protesters demand release of the hostages, improvement of the crime situation and advancement of the checkpoints further into the gorge. Local residents, including Kist (Georgians of Chechen descent) population of Pankisi, joined the protest action too. Descendent
On January 14 Eduard Shevardnadze said at the briefing: “Situation in Pankisi is complicated. But I do not foresee possibility of tragic development of the events”.

Advancement of the three checkpoints of the internal troops, subordinated to the Interior Ministry, further into the gorge on January 15 was the first of the special measures of the law enforcers. Before that the checkpoints were located in the entrance to the gorge.

Last spring the law enforcers have already attempted to advance the checkpoints, however units stayed on the new positions only for several hours and, according to official information, were forced to move back to the gorge entrance to avoid tensions with local Kist population.

As the Interior Ministry’s press service informs advancement of the checkpoints went without any accidents.

State Security Minister Valeri Khaburzania’s visit to Moscow on January 14 coincided with escalation of the tension in Pankisi. The same day Georgian President stated that Georgia is not going to conduct in Pankisi joint operations with Russians.

Russia repeatedly received refusal of the Georgian side on conduction of such joint operations in the gorge. Russia keeps blaming Georgia for harboring Chechen fighters and Arab terrorists in Pankisi.

Official Tbilisi does not actually reject such accusations any more. On November 7, 2001 President Shevardnadze admitted that Chechen field commander Ruslan Gelaev is in Georgia. On Russia’s demands to extradite Gelaev official Tbilisi replies that the Georgian side does not know where the Chechen commander is now.

Unofficial sources say that resistance of the Chechen fighters was the main obstacle for moving the checkpoints deeper into the gorge last year.

Certain politicians blame law enforcers for turning Pankisi gorge into the criminal enclave. Pankisi problem emerged when Kakha Targamadze was the Interior Minister.

Few days before the launching of the special actions, State Security Minister Valeri Khaburzania dismissed head of the Antiterrorist Center Levan Kenchadze. Georgian mass media has been mentioning that Kenchadze has strong ties with Pankisi criminals.

Some connect murder of the famous journalist Giorgi Sanaia to Pankisi issues (when the official investigation says that the murder was committed with personal motives). According to the widespread notion, Sanaia possessed a videotape proving connection of the high-ranking officials with drug trafficking in Pankisi gorge. However there are no proofs of this version so far.

Successful operation in Pankisi would help the newly appointed ministers of Internal Affairs and State Security to revamp the shattered image of their agencies. At the same time it would help President Shevardnadze to regain some of his vanishing popularity.

By Giorgi Sepashvili, Civil Georgia