A prominent Chechen official has reportedly been visiting Georgia for secret security talks amid heightened concern over terrorist threats. The meetings follow in the wake of two fatal security service raids in Georgia at the end of last year.
Mayor of the Chechen capital Grozny, and right-hand man of Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov, Muslim Khuchiev, made secret visits to Tbilisi and Batumi to meet with unnamed Georgian officials, reported local media. The subject of these meetings remains unknown, but the visit closely follows anti-terrorist operations that Georgia conducted in the Pankisi Gorge, bordering Chechnya.
The revelations that Kuchiev was in Batumi came after the television network Rustavi-2 shot footage of the mayor outside the Hilton Hotel on Monday. The network later reported that the Chechen official was guarded by Georgia’s State Security Service, further fueling rumors of secret talks.
It is known that the mayor arrived in Batumi on Sunday. And on Tuesday, when the story about his stay in the country was broadcast on Rustavi-2, he hastily left Georgia and returned to Grozny.
Muslim Khuchiev urged reporters “not to fantasize about his trip to Georgia.” He said he was simply on vacation and visited Batumi and Tbilisi as a tourist, RIA Novosti reported.
“Actually, since January 9, 2018 I have been on official leave, and I decided to visit Georgia as a tourist. I call on fantasy enthusiasts to calm their imaginations down and focus on pressing issues instead,” he said, via his press office.
The Chechen official’s visit coincided with a sharp increase of tensions in the Pankisi Gorge. Georgia's State Security Service claims that residents of the region helped ISIS commander Ahmed Chatayev enter Tbilisi and supplied him with weapons.
Ahmed Chatayev and two of his associates, all from Chechnya, were killed during a large-scale raid on an apartment complex in Tbilisi on November 21. A follow-up raid was conducted against suspected accomplices of Chatayev’s group in the Pankisi Gorge on December 26. Four locals were arrested and one (19-year-old Temirlan Machalikashvili) was killed under controversial circumstances.
North Caucasus analyst Neil Hauer wrote on Twitter suggesting the mayor's meetings may be part of Grozny's attempts to deal with Chechen fighters coming back from Syria: “Chechen authorities taking a serious interest in possible militant returnees from Syria. Kadyrov recently stated ‘terrorists have already reached Georgia, but we are prepared to meet them.’”
Since the Syrian conflict’s intensification in 2012, Chechen-headed jihadist groups such as the Jaysh al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar have become prominent in the region. Their leader was Umar Shishani, the infamous Chechen commander of Georgian origin who later rose through the ranks of the Islamic State.
Last February, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that 4,000 Russian citizens were then fighting in Syria, the majority of whom come from Chechnya and neighboring Dagestan. Georgia’s minority Kists account for more than 50 fighters in Syria.
But Georgian security expert Mamuka Areshidze believes Tbilisi's security cooperation with Kadyrov is unlikely. In an interview with Russian daily Kommersant, Areshidze said “Tbilisi is cooperating exclusively with Moscow on such matters, but not with regional authorities.”
Bradley Jardine is a freelance journalist who covers the Caucasus.