Georgian State Minister for Conflict Resolution David Bakradze on Nov. 12 accused Russia of bringing “large” amounts of illegal military equipment and personnel into its secessionist region of Abkhazia. Among the list of items Bakradze laid out was the disturbing charge that 200 new “peacekeepers” had been moved into Ochamchire — most of them Chechen. The Chechens have a long and bloody history in Georgia and Abkhazia, and using them as official peacekeepers is like throwing matches — or even road flares — at a powder keg.
Moscow and Tbilisi have been ratcheting up tensions through myriad provocations over the past five months, among them a missile being “mistakenly” dropped on a Georgian field and expelling each others’ diplomats. While the tit-for-tat has been going down, Georgia has internally fractured with mass protests and riots, and now the call for new elections. The Georgian government is weak, and now is the time for Russia to exert its influence in the region.
Russia’s best bet in gaining access to and destabilizing Georgia is through the secessionist regions. Since late September there has been a substantial increase in military tensions between Georgia and its separatist enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have mirrored and contributed to rising tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow.
At the start of November, Georgia accused Russian peacekeepers of kidnapping Georgian soldiers in the Abkhaz region of Ganmukhuri. With television crews in tow, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili flew to the scene to demand the soldiers’ freedom; the situation ended in a scuffle between the peacekeepers and Georgian government officials. But what the cameras caught was an interesting twist in that quite a few of the peacekeepers did not look Russian, but Caucasian.
It is difficult to tell from the footage if the peacekeepers are actually Chechen, but the possibility is one Georgian authorities have latched on to, saying that hundreds of Chechens have just been deployed to the region.
The Chechens have a long history in Abkhazia and Georgia, though their presence in the region is less like Chinese water torture and more like evisceration. Following a 1990-1992 stint fighting for the Armenians in the Azerbaijani secessionist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Chechens joined the Abkhazians during their “War of Independence” from Georgia. The Chechens proved to be invaluable in that two-year war, which was one of the bloodiest post-Soviet conflicts. But the war also showed that Georgia was far from able to fend off the Chechen militants’ wood-chipper tactics.
But the Chechens also received essential guerrilla-style training and practice, which they used in 1994 during the nasty first (post-Soviet) Chechen war with Russia — a war that left a gaping wound for Moscow throughout the following decade. While locked in conflict with Russia, in 2001 the Chechens returned to Abkhazia but fought for the Georgians in retribution for Abkhazia’s continued loyalty to Moscow.
But the situation between the Chechens and Russians has most definitely changed in the past year; Russia has locked down control of Chechnya for the first time since the Soviet period, declaring victory after two humiliating wars. The main reason the Russians were victorious this time is because Moscow switched tactics on how to smash the Chechen militancy, using Chechens to fight Chechens. Doing this allowed Russia to create a large unofficial military force of Chechens that has locked down — though brutally — its own region. Currently, Russian authorities claim to have 15,000 people within their Chechen militia, which is rumored to use tactics that would make even Russian intelligence blush — including the use of underground torture chambers and taking out entire families.
It is entirely possible, though not certain, that Russia could now be deploying its new pro-Moscow Chechen militia to other places, such as Georgia. Currently Georgia is far too unstable to deal with any serious Russian push, let alone the magnitude of fear and instability that a hostile Chechen presence south of the border could muster. But such a move would be dangerous for everyone involved, because each time Chechens get involved in other regions’ disputes, no side comes out well (except occasionally the Chechens).
Then again, Moscow knows that the Chechens are familiar with Abkhazia’s terrain and the tactics of both the Abkhaz and the Georgians. Moscow also knows that the Chechen militia’s scruples are less than that of the Russian force’s — something that could be handy as tensions with Tbilisi grow more dangerous.