By Emil Souleimanov (10/17/2012 issue of the CACI Analyst)

A series of skirmishes took place on August 28-29 in the Lopota valley situated in Georgia's mountainous northeast on the borders with Russia's Dagestani autonomy. The fighting cost the lives of two Georgian Ministry of Interior troops, a military doctor, and 11 gunmen identified as members of the North Caucasus Islamist insurgency. A few Georgian military personnel were injured and one insurgent, a Russian citizen, was captured by Georgian Special Forces. While the circumstances of what happened in the vicinity of the north Kakhetian village of Lapankuri have not yet been sufficiently revealed, the event might have a considerable impact on the security situation in the entire Caucasus, North and South.

BACKGROUND: Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili was quick to visit the village and assert that what had happened in the Lopota valley was “in the interest of our enemy,” implying Russia which according to some Georgian officials and commentators was most likely testing the preparedness of the Georgian security forces. However, the president stopped short of blaming Moscow for direct involvement in the incident, referring instead to the memory of “lekianoba” – the Lezghi or Daghestani raids of the 17th-18th centuries in which bands of highlanders devastated the Kakhetian countryside.

The official version of the events presented by the Georgian authorities shortly thereafter holds that in the woods to the east of the village of Lapankuri, a group of five Georgian youngsters was captured by the Islamist insurgents who had most likely penetrated the Georgian territory from Dagestan. In subsequent negotiations, the Georgian youngsters were freed in exchange for one or two police officers. The Georgian authorities then urged the Jihadists to lay down their arms and surrender, a demand that the insurgents refused. It is not entirely clear what followed at this point, however, the Georgian security forces supported by military helicopters and aerial vehicles eventually managed to destroy the majority of the insurgent group comprising of 16-20 people, whilst the remaining members were most likely able to escape.

Due to the general lack of clear and unambiguous information and the gradual evolution of some segments of the official narrative, as well as new evidence from the ground that soon entered Georgian media, the Tbilisi-backed interpretation of the Lopota incident was widely contested both within and outside Georgia. According to some opposition leaders, the incident might have been fabricated by the Georgian government to create a pretext for cancelling or at least postponing the parliamentary elections in Georgia on October 1. While this scenario has since been proven wrong, others have criticized the authorities for providing insufficient and unreliable information about the incident.

Yet most importantly, news have spread of the burial in Georgia’s Duisi district of three Kistis, members of a sub-ethnic group of the Chechens inhabiting the Pankisi gorge, located approximately 40 kilometers northwest of the village of Lapankuri. It has later been confirmed that at least three Kistis, who were Georgian citizens, were killed in the incident. Among the casualties were also members of Georgia’s Chechen community, which grew considerably in the early 2000s when thousands of Chechens escaping the Second Chechen War moved southward and found refuge among their ethnic kin in the Pankisi gorge. This was supported by eyewitness accounts from Lapankuri villagers, according to whom at least some of the insurgents were fluent in Georgian.

However, according to information later released by Georgian authorities, the rest of the slain insurgents were Russian citizens whose surnames and places of birth indicated their Chechen origin. An alternative explanation holds that the Kistis recruited in the Pankisi gorge were in the process of moving to Syria, where they allegedly intended to take part in the civil war on the side of the Sunni opposition. Yet, it remains unclear why in that case they would have ended up in Lopota rather than traveling to Tbilisi and then to the Georgian-Turkish border. 

IMPLICATIONS: Similarly, pro-insurgent sources provide little clarity on the incident. Shortly after word spread of the Lopota incident, North Caucasus Jihadist sources published a number of statements in which they accused Georgia of murdering their brethren in arms, who were identified as members of a Dagestani jamaat, and pledging vengeance against Georgians., the major website of the Dagestani jamaat of the Caucasus Emirate, admitted that some of its members had crossed the border. However, it rejected that they had planned any military operation on Georgian soil and asserted that no hostages were taken. The liquidation of the Jihadists was described as an act of betrayal by the Georgian authorities, which was “by no means the first time they have taken such a treacherous step in a bid to appease the Putinist regime in Russia.” This statement also appeared on Kavkaz Center, the website of the Caucasus Emirate, stirring up anti-Georgian sentiments among Northeast Caucasians sympathetic to the Jihadist case. A few days later, both Islamist websites withdrew their statements.

Sources from the Dagestani Ministry of Interior soon de facto acknowledged the version of events presented by both Georgian authorities and Dagestani insurgents, indicating that the killed Jihadists were most likely part of the Tsunta jamaat, choosing to cross the border into Georgia after facing an increasingly fierce counterinsurgent campaign.

The Russian authorities have staunchly rejected any assertion from Tbilisi indicating that the insurgents crossed the Russian-Georgian border, considering the incident a Georgian “provocation.” Russia has repeatedly, yet presenting little evidence, blamed Georgian authorities for either directly supporting Jihadists or turning the country into a safe haven for terrorists and insurgents waging a war against the Russian state. For example, Russia has since 2000 often pointed out the Chechen-populated Pankisi gorge as a source of support for the North Caucasus insurgency, particularly Chechnya-based jamaats.

Definite information is scarce and the whole truth about the Lopota incident may never reach the public. However, the incident serves as a reminder that the Caucasus is a geographically, politically and ethnically cohesive area, where developments north of the Greater Caucasus mountain range could relatively easily spread into the south and vice versa. Indeed, Georgia is an integral part of the Caucasus and its leadership has frequently expressed its commitment to pan-Caucasian solidarity. Many Georgians share strong sympathies for the efforts of the North Caucasus insurgency and the Georgian government has carried out policies aimed at winning the hearts and minds of North Caucasians and turning Georgia into an economic, political, and intellectual core of the united Caucasus.

However, when it comes to devising tangible policies on the ground, Georgia should consider its own interests that are only partially in line with those of the Jihadists or their numerous North Caucasian sympathizers, whose ideological orientation is far from that of the post-Soviet Georgian state.

Importantly, the Lopota events demonstrated Georgia’s vulnerability to prospective provocations that might be plotted by the Russian secret services as a pretext for interference into Georgia's internal affairs. This has also been a clear signal to Azerbaijan, which is already facing a dramatic growth of militant Salafi cells in the country’s north inhabited by Dagestani ethnicities (see the 05/02/2012 issue of the CACI Analyst). One of the reasons why Tbilisi decided to respond to the occurrence of Jihadist units on its soil in the fiercest possible way seems to have been that it would effectively deprive the Russians of a tool for future pressure.

CONCLUSIONS: As the counterinsurgent activities by federal and local armed forces gain momentum in Dagestan, the current epicenter of Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus, where dozens of thousands of army and ministry of interior troops have concentrated recently, the pressure will increase on the insurgents to occasionally cross the Russian-Georgian, as well as the Russian-Azerbaijani borders, to secure a temporary safe haven. This could pose a serious problem in the relations between Moscow on the one hand, and Tbilisi and Baku on the other. Georgia and Azerbaijan would be prompted to either turn a blind eye on the presence of armed militants on their soil and risk a conflict with Moscow, which might use this as a pretext for exerting pressure on the South Caucasian countries with the ultimate risk of military interference, or risk a dangerous conflict with ethnic minorities of Chechen and Dagestani descent populating their borderline areas.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Emil Souleimanov is assistant professor at the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of “Understanding Ethnopolitical Conflict: The Wars in Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia Reconsidered” (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming in 2013) and “An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective” (Peter Lang, 2007).