Over a chicken banquet the other day to celebrate his homecoming, Bilal, an ethnic Chechen guerrilla fighter, told tales of combat in Chechnya to friends and relatives and debated the merits of quarrelsome Chechen leaders.
Officially, the bearded Bilal is not supposed to be inside Georgia, the sole foreign country bordering Chechnya and the only destination Chechens can reach that is not blocked by Russian artillery and military patrols.
But here was Bilal, still in fatigues and with an AK-47 rifle in tow, just days after fighting in Chechnya against Russian forces.
Movements of Chechen rebels like Bilal are a potential embarrassment, if not a downright problem, for Georgia. The little former Soviet republic is trying to steer clear of the Russian-Chechen conflict. Georgians fear not only violence but also moves by Russia to increase its military presence in Georgia, where it maintains military bases. Georgia has rejected requests by Russia to allow border units to patrol the Georgian side of the frontier to block guerrilla infiltration.
[Russia accused Georgia last week of taking an anti-Russian stand over Chechnya and providing a propaganda platform for Chechen rebels, the Reuters news agency reported. Russia and Georgia have had several spats during the more than three-month campaign against separatist Chechen rebels, but the Dec. 21 statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry was unusually harsh. It said "a loud campaign of attacks on Russia has been unleashed in Georgia. . . . The Georgian authorities are presenting a platform for anti-Russian statements by Chechen emissaries."
[Reuters reported that Russian troops recently were dropped into an area about a mile from Georgia to stop Chechen rebels from fleeing into Georgia. In another development, a border guard spokesman said Russian helicopters again had dropped bombs on Georgia. For the third time, Georgia has accused Russia of dropping bombs within its borders. Moscow has apologized for one such incident.]
The tension between Georgia, the former Soviet republic, and Moscow, its previous overlord, is a prime example of dangers inherent in the Chechen conflict for the mountainous Caucasus region. Russia has also warned Azerbaijan, another former Soviet republic, against aiding the Chechens. The Chechens, meanwhile, threaten to carry their struggle into Russian-controlled parts of the Caucasus, potentially widening the war.
These uncertainties add up to yet another barrier to peace in a region struggling to escape the ravages of separatist conflicts. Georgia is fractured by unresolved conflicts with two of its regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Azerbaijan still lays claim to Nagorno-Karabakh, a region Russian-backed Armenian separatists wrested from its control. The conflicts have displaced hundreds of thousands of refugees. All threaten to erupt again in warfare.
Strategically, oil is at stake. Conflict undermines projects for the safe passage of petroleum from the potentially rich Caspian Sea basin to the west. Georgia and Azerbaijan are on the route of an American-backed project to deliver oil by pipeline through Turkey to the Mediterranean Sea. Russia is trying to compete with a new pipeline it wants to build through Dagestan, which abuts Chechnya, to the Black Sea.
The Georgians deny charges that Chechen fighters take refuge on its territory, and officials have announced that entry to the country is barred to anyone deemed capable of bearing arms. "As regards able-bodied men," Korneli Salia, deputy chief of the border patrol, said recently, "our border guards have not allowed them into Georgian territory before and will not in the future."
Russia, on the other hand, is quick to accuse Georgia of enthusiastically aiding the Chechens, letting guerrillas hide there and permitting arms and equipment to transit the rugged frontier. Earlier this month, Moscow advised its citizens to leave Georgia on the grounds that the Chechens, given free rein on Georgian territory, were planning terror attacks. Russia says at least 500 Chechen guerrillas have fled to Georgia to escape airstrikes and combat.
For Georgia, there is almost no way to escape being touched by the Chechnya war. Taking the Russian side means offending its own ethnic Chechens, thousands of whom live in pastoral border villages like Omalo. Offending Russia invites retaliation--the government of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin already has ended visa-free travel for Georgians into Russia as punishment for alleged Georgian help for Chechnya.
So Georgia tiptoes. It is not the welcoming oasis for Chechens that the Russians claim, but neither is it absolutely free of guerrilla infiltration.
Bilal and other ethnic Chechens in Georgia complain that border guards stop men from coming in, but that with connections or bribes, hurdles can be overcome. In any case, the dangers of crossing into Georgia were far less for Bilal than the bombing on the front. "After a 500-pound bomb lands next to your trench, bullets are like flies," said Bilal, a native of Georgia.
In Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, young Chechen men work to find ways to deliver medicines and arms to Chechnya. With satellite phones at the ready, they arrange supply trips over the mountainous frontier. Bela, a former rap singer turned guerrilla fighter, rested at a Chechen hideout after leaving Chechnya two weeks ago. He sat among militants alternately plotting a return to Chechnya, watching kung fu movies and making plans for an album of Chechen folk tunes set to a contemporary beat. He and the others said more Chechens are willing to fight than there are weapons to arm them. "Unemployment is an ally," said one of the militants.
Georgia hosts a small number of refugees from Chechnya. Numbers vary--from the 1,700 claimed by Tbilisi to the 4,000 quoted by Russians. By way of comparison, more than 250,000 Chechens have fled to Ingushetia, west of Chechnya.
The passage to Georgia is precarious. Russian jets bomb the roads, Chechen refugees say, and men are turned back, leaving families to fend for themselves in impoverished Georgia. To evade bribe-hungry guards, men sometimes risk frostbite to cross the high mountains that separate Georgia from Russia along much of the border. "We had to walk and walk. Two boys got frostbite," said Umar, a refugee from a village south of Grozny, the besieged Chechen capital. "Still, we had to take the risk. We had a cellar where a drunk couldn't hide from his wife, much less a place where a family can hide from a bomb."
Some refugees are housed in abandoned buildings along the frontier. Others take refuge with relatives. They receive meager handouts from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Georgian clinics supply medicines.
"More would come, but they think there is little help here if they don't have relatives," said Umar, who at one point trekked back into Chechnya to sell his car to get money to buy food. But he couldn't sell it. "Who wants a car now? It's useless when the roads are dangerous."