No one paid much attention back then to the Russian security service chief’s announcement. Such “intelligence” reports from Russia never come as a surprise to anyone. They are quite frequent and, as a rule, unfounded. Everyone naturally assumed the July 2011 report was unreliable too.
A year later, on 26 August 2012, five young residents of the Lapankuri village went missing. They were found unharmed two days later. Although that news was duly communicated, no information was released about the circumstances surrounding the youngsters’ disappearance.
Late evening on 28 August, local electronic media reported on intensive police activity in the Lopota Gorge. That same night, the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs released a statement that it had detected an armed group in the Lopota Gorge and that a “pursuit operation” was underway there. The Ministry’s statement said nothing about a possible link between the disappearance of the Lapankuri residents and the special operation launched in the Lopota Gorge.
On the afternoon of 29 August, the Interior Ministry revealed that members of the armed group detected in Georgia were “diversionists” and that the “pursuit operation” involved the release of hostages.
The Interior Ministry’s statement about subversive activity and hostages further intensified public concern about developments unfolding in the Lopota Gorge. By that time, the five Lapankuri residents had already been found but we were told nothing about other people missing too. Most worried were those who closely watched the events unfolding simultaneously in Dagestan.
Later, the Georgian government confirmed that the missing Lapankuri youngsters had been taken hostage by the armed group against which the special operation had been launched. The public also learned that the missing youngsters found on 28 August by Georgian border police officers had been freed after the head of that border sector, Ramaz Paradashvili, agreed to stay with the armed group in exchange for release of the civilians.
According to the official version, a Georgian Interior Ministry officer went to the site after hearing that a border police officer was being held hostage and convinced the armed group to swap him for the border officer.
The Interior Ministry maintains that an armed clash erupted, killing all eleven gunmen, only after the group flatly refused to put down its arms and surrender. Tragically, the special operation also claimed the lives of two special forces officers and one military doctor.
The account of events which locals gave to Georgian media largely coincides with the picture described by the government – in factual, not evaluative terms. An anonymous source, identified by Liberali magazine only as “a middle-aged male resident of Lapankuri,” described members of the armed group as “fighters” and confirmed that a border police officer stayed with the group in exchange for the release of the village youngsters until he was replaced by the law enforcement officer. Liberali also reported: “Fighters demanded nothing. They wanted to cross the border to go to Dagestan where their chief had been killed and, probably, they were going there.”
That the armed group intended to cross the border was also confirmed by Kavkazcenter.com – the main web portal of the Caucasus Emirate, the North Caucasian resistance front. According to its posting: “The group of recruits advanced to an intended deployment site for further participation in the fighting against Russian occupation troops in the Province of Dagestan.” Interestingly, a far sterner statement previously posted on Kavkazcenter.com was taken off the website soon thereafter. In the initial Kavkazcenter.com statement, Mujahedeens accused the Georgian government of collaborating with Russia and threatened to retaliate for the annihilation of the armed group.Contrary to some accusations, the government itself never claimed that the “diversionists” were Mujahedeens. In fact, the government has not even revealed yet where the armed group was believed to be heading or how its members happened to appear on the territory of Georgia.
We do not know either why the Interior Ministry called the armed gunmen “diversionists” – maybe it simply confused the terms or perhaps the Ministry has information about a planned subversive act and does not want to jeopardize an ongoing investigation by revealing that information.
Nor have we learned why the Interior Minister initially claimed that none of the eleven gunmen who were killed was a Georgian citizen and then the very next day said that two of the seven dead gunmen whose identities had been established were Georgian citizens from Pankisi and the other five were citizens of Russia.
There is nothing out of the ordinary about law enforcement authorities, in the interest of state security, withholding such investigative details as citizenship, motive or specifics of a crime. That is especially common only a few days after the incident when the investigation is still in progress. But by releasing conflicting statements, the Ministry of Internal Affairs fed public distrust of its official account.
On 30 August, Georgian Dream political coalition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili claimed that the special forces officers killed during the special operation were Georgian Dream supporters. Even though there was scarce information to assess the incident objectively, the opposition leader alleged that the special operation conducted by the government was a reckless adventure. It is noteworthy that similar statements were made by Ivanishvili’s fellow political coalition members within hours of commencement of the special operation. Opposition politicians accused President Mikheil Saakashvili of organizing bloodshed and staging a provocation with the political aim of “keeping his seat.” None of the accusatory politicians bothered to explain how staging an armed clash on the Georgian-Russian border would in any way help strengthen the position of the ruling party.
Bidzina Ivanishvili admitted that he actually knew little about developments in the Lopota Gorge. Yet, he still was certain that he would be able to come up with “some simple” solution and “spare our people from being killed there.” And the leader of the opposition asked: “Did they [the armed group] enter the territory of Georgia and request to be allowed to go back? Why should they not be allowed to go back? They should have left children [hostages from Lapankuri] and let them go back, in principle. They would return where they came from, wouldn’t they?”
Unlike Ivanishvili and other armchair generals, we do not have the benefit of perfect 20/20 hindsight. We therefore cannot join in speculation about how professionally the operation was conducted. Hostages were released unscathed, which is a successful outcome by any measurement. We have no way of knowing whether or not the deaths of the Georgian law enforcement officers might somehow have been avoided or whether the armed group members could have been captured alive. We do not know the answers to those questions because we do not have enough information to pass judgment – the investigation has yet to be completed and, even after it ends, we may learn only those facts which the government deems appropriate to disclose given national security interests.
We may not have the answers to all those questions, but we can easily respond to Ivanishvili’s question about why an armed group “should not be allowed” to go to Russia. For that, one need only look at what was going on in Dagestan back in those days when so-called “recruits” tried to infiltrate Russia. Many will recall the external and internal threats that Georgia faced a decade ago when the Russian leadership branded Georgia as a safe haven for terrorists – and not without good reason owing to the inability of our government at that time to control the situation. Then we should compare the Russia of 2002 – exhausted from the war in Chechnya – with the Russia of today and the answer to Ivanishvili’s question will be clear to just about anyone.That segment of the society which views itself as the “mind, honor and pride of the epoch” accuses President Saakashvili of the inhumane treatment of armed group members. Some of the accusers cannot hide their indignation that the official investigation caused a three-day delay in delivering the bodies of murderers of law enforcement officers to families in Pankisi. “The entire village equally mourns those eleven fighters and the officers of Georgian special forces. They [the fighters] did not deserve to be killed,” that anonymous “middle-aged male resident of Lapankuri” told the shaken author of the article in Liberali.
Sympathy displayed by a victim toward an offender is not a unique phenomenon. It is known as the Stockholm Syndrome. The perfect example illustrating that syndrome was the video posted on the webpage of the Kakheti Information Center in which the mother of one of the Lapankuri hostages noted with gratitude that her son was not deprived of food or drink by his abductors and that “the only thing was that he was captured and taken away.”
Such irrational attitudes in Lapankuri and its surrounding environs may be attributed to regional fear of Wahhabi fighters and the experience of the recent past. More difficult to explain is the attitude of the author of the Liberali article, Beka Kurkhuli, who writes: “No one denies that [the armed gunmen] might be going to the North Caucasus to fight but why were they not captured alive? Especially considering that they were 19-20 year-old boys who believed that Russia has occupied their homeland, offended their religion and killed their compatriots. It is also a fact that the Caucasus Emirate, designated as a terrorist organization by the international community, its fighters – Mujahedeens, and their leader, Doku Umarov, who relentlessly fights against Russia, have never – by word or by deed – taken a step against Georgia or the Georgian government.”
Until the “mind, honor and pride of the epoch” figures out that the enemy of its enemy is not necessarily its friend, let’s get back to the issue of “19-20 year-old boys.”
On 3 September, the Ministry of Internal Affairs released the names of seven of the eleven members of the armed group killed in the Lopota Gorge. The two citizens of Georgia – twenty-two-year-old Aslan Margoshvili and twenty-six-year-old Bahudin Kavtarashvili – were identified as Kists from Pankisi. The five dead Russian citizens were identified as: Bahudin Baghakashvili, a Kist born in Grozny with relatives in Pankisi; Dukvakha Doshuyev, Salam Zaurbekov and Musa Aduyev, forty-four, twenty and thirty-one year old, respectively, all Chechens; and twenty-three-year-old Jabrail Khashiyev, who was Ingush.
The Caucasus Emirate’s claim that the armed gunmen were recruits heading for Dagestan is highly dubious. It is curious, to say the least, that a small group of seventeen “recruits” managed to deliver such a heavy blow to a very well-trained Shavnabada battalion. Moreover, the military equipment with which they were equipped – sniper rifles, military night-vision equipment, sophisticated communications technology, light grenade launchers – raises questions about just how inexperienced these “recruits” really were. Military experts who reviewed video footage released by the Interior Ministry of that weaponry aver that its application would require at least one year of training.
according to Israeli political analyst and Caucasus expert Avraham Shmulevich, that sophisticated modern armament ties the group to Russia. As Shmulevich points out, the group’s Austrian-made Steyr Scout sniper rifles, each worth USD 2,700, have never beenobserved in the armament of Islamists; however, such weapons were purchased just this year by Russia’s main intelligence directorate. Following Shmulevich’s theory, one can reasonably surmise that infiltration of Dagestan for “further participation in the fighting” by armed Georgian citizens from Pankisi, together with guerrillas from the North Caucasus, was a step taken not against Russia but against Georgia.
The most interesting and influential of those “19-20 year-old boys” was Dukvakha Doshuyev – a former bodyguard of Chechen leader Akhmed Zakayev. In the early 2000s, after Zakayev escaped abroad, Doshuyev was arrested but quickly granted amnesty by the Russian government.
The Russian edition Kommersant reports that Doshuyev’s testimony implicating Zakayev in every crime alleged by the Russian Government was presented by the General Prosecutor’s Office of the Russian Federation during a 2003 London court hearing on Zakayev’s extradition back to Russia. Doshuyev later fled Russia and recanted that testimony, which he claimed had been coerced after days of torture.
Though common sense suggests that the Lapankuri case proves the opposite, members of the Georgian Dream coalition accuse the government of collaborating with illegal armed groups. Georgian Dream single-seat candidate Paata Zakareishvili goes so far as to call Saakashvili a “double-crosser” for allegedly luring members of the armed group into Georgia, allowing them to take “rest or training” in the Lopota Gorge, and then mercilessly wiping them out. Yet another single-seat candidate of Georgian Dream, Mamuka Areshidze, claims that the Georgian government controls the Pankisi gorge with the help of Wahhabis and that those “19-20 year-old boys” were members of that extremist sect. The rhetoric of Georgian Dream candidates echoes that of Russian pro-government print media – “terrorist attacks in Russia may be coordinated from Georgia,” the Izvestiya newspaper writes.
Pankisi from 1999 to 2005
In 1999, at the beginning of the Second Chechen War, some six thousand refugees found shelter in Georgia. Many of them had relatives in the Pankisi Gorge.
That influx complicated the situation both inside and outside the country. Kidnappings, drug dealings, burglaries and killings skyrocketed. Suffering in the face of all that crime, the population accused high-ranking officials of collaborating with criminals.
Resident dissatisfaction peaked in January 2002 when law enforcement officers wounded three Akhmeta men in a restaurant shootout. According to Akhmeta residents, law enforcement representatives were feasting together with Chechen criminals when locals reprimanded them for that. The verbal quarrel was followed by gunfire from the law enforcement officers.
On the premise that the Shevardnadze government was sheltering terrorists, Vladimir Putin wanted to bring an army into Georgia. Tensions mounted in July 2002 after Russian military forces were ambushed by sixty Chechen fighters just North of the Georgian border. Russia retaliated with the shelling of the Pankisi Gorge on 23 August 2002, killing one civilian and wounding seven others.
Eduard Shevardnadze’s tepid response was to send police and security forces into Pankisi to ask criminals they knew to go away. Thereafter, the government declared that the insurgents and terrorists had left Georgia upon announcement of the special operation.
On 4 September 2002, Shevardnadze received a letter from Putin demanding that terrorists be “neutralized.” In parallel, Putin tasked Russian defense, security and border guard authorities to draw up a plan of intervention. Putin dispatched letters to U.S. President George W. Bush, the UN Security Council and OSCE member states, threatening to use the right of self-defense granted under the UN Charter.
In some sense, the 9/11 tragedy averted Russian intervention into Georgia. Following that Al-Qaida attack, the United States government, which had previously shown some isolationist inclinations, declared a global war against terrorism. Within the scope of that policy, the Pankisi Gorge became a point of interest for the United States because U.S. intelligence services had doubts that Al-Qaida members had actually found shelter in Georgia.
It was by coincidence that a previously scheduled meeting between Eduard Shevardnadze and George Bush was held in Washington within a few weeks of the 9/11 attacks. In a letter published just days before the two presidents’ meeting on 5 October 2001, a research fellow of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies noted with regret: “Georgia, however, has not been able to establish effective control over its border area with Chechnya. And now it is at center of Moscow’s anti-terrorism efforts.”
The research fellow, Zeyno Baran, recommended that the U.S. President “deliver a clear redline to Russia” and not give Russia a free hand in Georgia on the pretext of the war on terrorism and, at the same time, “deliver a tough message to President Shevardnadze” to eradicate any grounds for speculation that Georgia would allow terrorists into its territory.
After the Shevardnadze-Bush meeting, the United States allocated sixty-four million USD to Georgia for the training of an anti-terrorist unit. The Georgia Train and Equip Program lasted for twenty-one months. With that step, the United States made clear to Russia that Washington perceived a terrorist threat in the Pankisi Gorge and was itself interested in eliminating that threat.
The Pankisi Gorge issue resurfaced again in 2004 during a meeting between Mikheil Saakashvili and Vladimir Putin. As the Georgian President later recalled: “The first thing [Putin] asked me was to fortify the border and show support in conducting an operation in the North Caucasus.” In 2005, the Georgian state succeeded in imposing an effective control over the Pankisi Gorge.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 113, published 10 September 2012.