As Georgia and Russia attempt to improve relations, Chechen refugees in the Georgia's Pankisi Gorge are reporting increased police harassment and a growing sense of insecurity. While Tbilisi maintains it has no intention of forcibly returning refugees to Russia, Chechens in the Pankisi Gorge are expressing a desire to be resettled in the West.
Chechen concerns have been spurred by a recent Russian demand that Georgia take action to eradicate suspected Chechen militants from the Pankisi Gorge. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Many Chechens believe Georgian officials will fulfill the demand, issued shortly before Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze's resignation and departure for Russia, as part of a quid pro quo for Russia's cooperation with President Mikheil Saakashvili's administration on Ajaria. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The Pankisi has a reputation of being a lawless area, and has long been a source of tension in Georgian-Russian relations. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees believe that the increasing government scrutiny of Chechen refugees is tied to the Saakashvili's administration's broader anti-crime crackdown. However, this possibility has done little to assuage refugee fears.
"The problem is that there is a growing concern among the refugee population about their security situation due to their feeling that the Georgian-Russian relationship is improving," said Naveed Hussain, the UNHCR representative to Georgia. "They think that the best option for them, given that they cannot return home, is resettlement."
"Our position is that if there are any [Chechen militants] in the Pankisi, any activity the government takes should not affect the living conditions of the refugees," Hussain added.
To call attention to the growing uncertainty about their future, a group of 60 Chechens in Pankisi started a hunger strike May 6. Their chief demand was a government commitment to resettle them in a Western country. Hunger strike participants asserted that local police have been harassing the almost 3,900 Chechen refugees in Pankisi since January, when Saakashvili assumed the presidency. Many reported being subjected to security and documentation checks by armed, plain clothes police. They also said Chechen men in Pankisi are frequently arrested on flimsy charges.
In the aftermath of the May 9 assassination of Chechen President Ahmed Kadyrov, Moscow is unlikely to ease its pressure on the Georgian government to contain the perceived Chechen threat. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "Georgia will need to pay a price for Russia's help with Ajaria, just as Georgia will expect to be paid a price for any action taken in the Pankisi," said Dmitri Trenin, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow.
Although Tbilisi over the past two years has reestablished its authority in the gorge, the area is still burdened with a reputation as a haven for terrorists and Islamic militants. "The problem with the Pankisi Gorge," said UNHCR assistant program director Kellie Hynes, who works with refugees in the valley, "has always been the threat of a problem."
Georgian officials insist that their Pankisi crackdown aims solely to root out militants and Islamic radicals. It may be difficult, however, to distinguish between refugees and militants, Trenin suggested. "Some of those refugees might have ties to the rebels; they could be their kith and kin. Or the rebels could also just be normal people. The problem with rebels is that they live in the midst of the population."
The OSCE has not detected any "serious crossing" of Chechen militants into Georgia from Chechnya in the last year, Peter Marron, deputy head of the OSCE's border patrol unit, said in a recent interview with EurasiaNet. Monitoring, however, is not conducted in the Pankisi area.
On a recent visit by EurasiaNet to the main Pankisi village of Duisi, refugees dismissed Russian reports that armed fighters still roam the gorge. "Of course, people stood up to the Russians," said one male refugee who declined identification. "But does that make you a fighter when planes come and bomb your village? When OMON [special assignment militia] comes and terrorizes your family? "
At the Kontura collective center -- a facility housing 21 refugee families in rooms heated by coal stoves and with no indoor plumbing or electricity -- residents said that they had one goal in mind: to leave Georgia. "I'm willing to wait, but how long can I wait? I want to live as a normal person, with normal food," said Khaifa, a 42-year-old woman who lives with four children in a single room. There's one solution, interjected Usain Izmailov, a writer. "Let Georgia bring in two planes and take us out, and the problem will be solved."
Chechen refugees, most of whom do not speak Georgian, say they have little chance to improve their living conditions. "If we stay in Georgia, there's no future for our children," said Khaida Azimova, who has been living with her husband and two children in the valley since 1999. "The Pankisi is the poorest region of Georgia. Chechens can live anywhere. We would go anywhere, to any region of the West."
An ongoing resettlement program so far has transferred 10 families out of the Pankisi to various countries in Western Europe and North America. Resettlement decisions are made on a case-by-case, and country-by-country basis. Canada and the United States, for instance, refuse men who were ex-fighters in either of Chechnya's two wars (1994-1996 and 1999-present) with Russia. Scandinavian countries like Norway have no such restrictions. Some countries only want families; others refuse men with more than one wife.
The mass resettlement of Pankisi's Chechens has so far not been seriously considered. "It [the existing resettlement program] is a solution for a rather limited number of people. Everyone cannot be resettled," Hussain said.
Elizabeth Owen is a is a freelance writer specializing in political issues in the Caucasus.