Wednesday, 24 April 2002

COULD THE PANKISI GORGE DECIDE THE FATE OF THE CAUCASUS?

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By Pavel Baev (4/24/2002 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: The Pankisi Gorge is only a tiny blip on Pentagon’s global map of the counter-terrorist operation. The information about direct links between the Chechen resistance and the Taliban (and even bin Laden personally), eagerly supplied by Moscow, has never been particularly reliable. There is, however, sufficient evidence to assume that a few dozen Arab fighters have indeed taken part in the Chechen War, using Pankisi as one of the points of entry.

BACKGROUND: The Pankisi Gorge is only a tiny blip on Pentagon’s global map of the counter-terrorist operation. The information about direct links between the Chechen resistance and the Taliban (and even bin Laden personally), eagerly supplied by Moscow, has never been particularly reliable. There is, however, sufficient evidence to assume that a few dozen Arab fighters have indeed taken part in the Chechen War, using Pankisi as one of the points of entry. A modest ‘train-and-equip’ operation in which 200 US instructors would for six months work with some 1,500 Georgian ‘elite’ troops, who would then, presumably, take control over Pankisi, seems an appropriate answer to this local situation. The immediately obvious complication is the dismal state of Georgian army, which exists on a budget of about $20 million and has been able to attract attention only by staging unorganized ‘mutinies’, normally quelled by disbursing some of the unpaid salaries. To transform a bunch of these ragtag warriors into a military unit capable of performing a counter-terrorist operation is a tall order. But if the US trainers would indeed succeed beyond expectations, the question that arises is what the Georgian battalions would do after they enter Pankisi to find out that all the terrorists have long gone? The fact of the matter is that the Pankisi question is rather low on the list of priorities of the Georgian authorities, while a highly sensitive issue that is always close to the top is Abkhazia. This quasi-independent republic won a secessionist war against Georgia back in autumn 1993 and has been since living in the expectation of a new attack. The connection between the two conflicts was proven last October when a group of Chechen fighters arrived from the Pankisi Gorge to the Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia and attempted to advance on the regional capital of Sukhumi with a still unclear aim. The Georgian government provided direct support for this enterprise, but the exposure of its failure in the media caused a serious scandal and eventually the resignation of several ministers. 

IMPLICATIONS: The core of Georgia’s problems lies in the desperate efforts to prolong the existence of a weak authoritarian regime that keeps only a semblance of democratic procedures but is unable to achieve any efficiency. The problem of terrorism is real – from a couple of assassination attempts on Shevardnadze to the murder of the chief of the CIA station in Tbilisi – but it has little to do with Pankisi and everything to do with all-penetrating corruption. The first immediately obvious implication of the US deployment was a sharp negative reaction from Moscow. While hysterical headlines in the media disappeared the day after President Putin had clarified that ‘this is not a tragedy’, most of the political elite remains visibly irritated with this US ‘encroachment’ towards Russia’s borders. Public opinion has duly registered the sharpest dive in the attitude towards the US since the Kosovo war. There have been several military incidents between Russia and Georgia (including most recently in the Kodori Gorge) since the announcement about the forthcoming US deployment, and it does not take a penetrating analysis to predict more to come. Even more serious implications could be expected in Georgia itself. The country, with all its economic ills and identity problems, is decidedly and sometimes desperately pro-Western, so the arrival of the US troops has been a welcome news indeed. It has provided a visible boost to the Shevardnadze regime whose public support had been sinking to the very bottom. The problem is that it is not a window of opportunity for advancing reforms that is being opened but merely a prolongation of the life of a fundamentally corrupt regime. This miracle of delivering an answer to Georgia’s prayers will inevitably be a short-lived one and the sins of the thoroughly criminalized economy may strike back even before the scheduled departure of the US trainers six months from now. Inflated expectations often give way to deep disappointment, so Georgia might slip back to the verge of state failure (to which Moscow had helped push it in 1992-93 and from which it then saved it in autumn 1993). The newly-trained ‘elite’ battalions could easily become more a part of the problem than part of a solution in this classical revolutionary situation. The Shevardnadze regime (assuming the ‘Old Fox’ remains in charge) could try to exploit the irredentist anger to regain public support, which has already worried the separatist regime in Abkhazia. But it is not only Abkhazia that now feels threatened, but also Ajaria, which is very much of a personal fiefdom of Aslan Abashidze, and Armenian-populated Javakheti in the southwest - both are areas that host Russian military bases.  

CONCLUSIONS: The US deployment to Georgia is designed as a small-scale and limited-duration operation with no combat aims, but with a broad political agenda, stretching as far as providing stability along the route of the yet-to-be-constructed Baku-Tbilisi-Cheyhan pipeline. Accordingly, the risks for the operation are not that much of the traditional ‘mission creep’ type (even if engaging the Chechen fighters in their own mountains is a hard proposition) but more of a ‘political overload’ character. Being trapped between the Chechen and Abkhazian conflicts is bad enough, but experiencing a sharply destabilized Georgia and facing a seriously irritated Russia may be significantly worse. 

AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Pavel K. Baev is Senior Researcher and Head of the Foreign and Security Policy Program at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO), Norway.

Copyright 2001 The Analyst. All rights reserved

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