Did Saakashvili's Government Recruit and Train Chechen Islamist Militants?
A year ago last week, Georgian troops carried out a military operation against what it called "armed subversives" infiltrating the country from Russia. The operation, in the Pankisi Gorge where Georgia's small Chechen minority lives, reportedly killed 11 people. And President Mikheil Saakashvili, then in the heat of a parliamentary election campaign with Bidzina Ivanishvili, called the alleged incursion a "provocation" by Russia aimed at influencing the vote.
But a year on, evidence has emerged to cast serious doubt on the government's original claims, and there are credible suggestions that the operation was in fact the botched result of an attempt by Saakashvili's government to train Chechen rebels to destabilize Russia. The crux of the issue seems to be, as the headline in a recent piece by Open Democracy put it, "Is Georgia a terrorist state?"
Questions about the official version of events arose soon after the events. But the really damning counterallegations came in an April report by Georgian human rights ombudsman Ucha Nanuashvili, who concluded that:
[T]he Chechens had been recruited in Europe by Georgian Interior Ministry officials, brought to Tbilisi, and trained over a period of several months in the use of weaponry with the intention of enabling them to cross the border from Georgia into Chechnya to join the ranks of the Islamic insurgency.
In addition to the young Chechens living in exile in Europe, the organizers of the operation also recruited several Kists (Georgian Chechens) from the Chechen community that has lived for several centuries in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge.
Now, RFE/RL reports in a comprehensive piece on the controversy a year on, new allegations suggest that it may have been the defense ministry, not the interior ministry, that was behind the scheme. And there are claims that the Chechens may have been intended to attack Ivanishvili himself, or to create a terror attack in Georgia that the authorities could blame him for. And it notes:
The ongoing official investigation into how, why, and by whom the Chechens were co-opted has apparently stalled, although Ivanishvili, who is now prime minister, said in late April that it would be completed "in the near future."
To sum up: there are credible allegations that the Georgian government recruited and trained Chechens to take part in Islamist militant movements. Obviously, there could be some political element to the allegations. But when I've asked Georgians about this, none of them say the claims are ludicrous, they tend to shrug their shoulders and say some version of "Who knows?" Why has this not been a bigger story?
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.
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