The Moscow hostage crisis underscores the danger that Georgia faces in confronting its own Chechen dilemma. In trying to ease Russian concerns over the presence of Chechen fighters in the Pankisi Gorge, Tbilisi is risking retribution by the separatists. In the coming days, President Eduard Shevardnadze will face difficult choices that are likely to anger either Russian leaders or Chechen separatists, or perhaps both.
Already, the standoff between Chechen hostage-takers, supposedly led by Movsar Barayev, and Russian security forces is prompting some in Moscow to renew pressure on Georgia. Several Russian politicians "have linked Barayev's group with the Pankisi Gorge issue," the Prime News agency reported October 24.
Georgian officials deny any link. First Deputy Security Minister Irakli Alasania told Prime News that Barayev and his followers fought against Georgian forces in Abkhazia during the 1992-93 civil war in the separatist-minded region. Alasania added that Georgian officials possessed no evidence that Barayev's unit had ever been in the Pankisi area.
Mamuka Areshidze, a prominent Georgian expert on Caucasus political affairs, said Barayev was a rival of Chechen field commander Ruslan Gelayev. In early 2002, Georgian officials admitted that Gelayev-led separatists were operating in the Pankisi Gorge. Gelayev's presence in Pankisi would effectively rule out the possibility that Barayev operated in the region.
Russia-Georgian relations have deteriorated in 2002, in large part due to Moscow's complaints about Tbilisi's lackluster efforts to contain Chechen fighters in Pankisi. Separatist groups reportedly used the gorge, which is adjacent to Chechnya, as a safe haven from which they launched raids into Russian territory.
Russian frustration reached the point where President Vladimir Putin issued an ultimatum in September that if Georgia did not take immediate steps to improve the Pankisi security situation, Russian forces would consider unilateral military action. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives]. Bilateral tension had been gradually receding in recent weeks after Tbilisi agreed to joint border patrols, and to the extradition of suspected Chechen terrorists in Georgian custody. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archives].
So far five of 13 Chechens in Georgian custody have been handed over to Russia. Soon after the initial extraditions, however, Georgia balked at handing over the remaining suspects, citing a decision by the European Court of Human Rights. The latest turn of events in Moscow has many in Tbilisi unwilling to take any action that might anger Chechens.
"The entire Chechen nation is putting everything at stake by taking hostages in Moscow," political analyst Zurab Tchiaberashvili said. "In this situation, irritating them could cause serious problems for anybody. If Tbilisi makes any decisive moves, certain military activism [by Chechens] on our [Georgian] territory could not be excluded."
At present, Chechen goodwill towards Georgia appears strong, despite the extradition controversy. The Moscow hostage-takers, for example, reportedly released a Georgian citizen along with most women and children who were in the theater when the militants stormed the building.
However, political observers in Tbilisi point out that several statements issued in early October warned of possible retribution if Tbilisi extradited the remaining suspects to Russia.
An October 8 protest note condemned Shevardnadze's willingness to hand over Chechens to Moscow. "When for the past four years Russia has been pursuing a policy of genocide in Chechnya that manifests itself in screening camps, mass killings, executions, torture and violence, the extradition of Chechens to Russia looks like assistance in committing crimes against humanity," said a statement issued by the Chechen "foreign ministry."
"The Georgian leadership is not only flouting international norms, but is also making a tragic mistake that could have irreparable consequences," the statement continued.
A subsequent statement October 15 said Tbilisi would be held responsible for the "lives and safety" of Chechens in Georgian custody, adding that it was "inadmissible" to carry out further extraditions to Russia.
Some Georgian political analysts believed prior to the Moscow hostage incident that Chechens were unlikely to follow through on their threats, citing the fact that thousands of Chechen civilian refugees are now in Georgia. Now, apprehension in Tbilisi concerning the Chechen dilemma is reaching new heights.
Russian leaders will doubtless react severely if Tbilisi reneges on its extradition commitment. But at this stage, Georgian officials appear to view Russia's wrath as a lesser evil than the Chechen threat of vengeance.
Giorgi Kandelaki is a senior at the Department of Political Science at Tbilisi State University. He is a member of the Youth Atlantic Council of Georgia.