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Revisiting the old specter of Chechen militants and Pankisi Gorge

By M. Alkhazashvili
Wednesday, February 13
Suggestions by the Russian armed forces that Chechen rebel militants could be hopscotching the Georgian–Russian border took people in both countries aback, unearthing what was thought to be a buried issue.

On February 7 Lt. Gen. Anatoly Zabrodin, first deputy head of the Russian Border Service, warned of Chechen militants infiltrating Russian from Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge.

Chechen militants found shelter in once-lawless Pankisi in the previous decade, and Russia has unilaterally bombed the region at times. The Georgian government has since mopped up the area, and says that only refugees and local inhabitants remain.

Zabrodin’s statement was made just days after Vladimir Putin visited Russia’s Caucasian republics, declaring that there is not a security problem but rather socioeconomic problems in the region.

Paranoid Georgian observers see a veiled threat in the suggestion that Chechen militants are decamped in Pankisi—by implying that the border is porous, the Russian military can funnel its own paramilitaries through the gorge while maintaining plausible deniability.

These could be men loyal to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, one Georgian analyst posits, sent southwards as the passes clear of snow to stir up trouble during the April NATO summit in Bucharest.

With such wild speculation rampant in the Georgian media, political peace between Tbilisi and Moscow couldn’t come too soon. Snows may thaw in spring, but if relations remain frosty the potential for violent clashes will endure.