A member of the Alliance of Patriots, Vaja Otarashvili, stated on January 24, 2018, on air at TV Obiektivi that USA gives birth to terrorists itself and that George W. Bush allegedly aimed to create an “epicenter” in Pankisi Gorge.
Vaja Otarashvili: “These terrorists are created by America itself, i.e. Syria, where they artificially created a quasi-state of terrorists and then fought it themselves. America wanted to create a similar ‘epicenter’ in Pankisi Gorge. That letter by [George W.] Bush proves it, by the way.”
Otarashvili’s statement is a lie, as the Government of Georgia regained control over Pankisi Gorge exactly through the “Train and Equip” program by the US Government, which ultimately saved the country from Russian intervention.
Situation Prior to the Start of Train and Equip
The Government of Georgia was unable to control Pankisi Gorge since 1999. Soon after the start of the Second Chechen War, several thousand refugees moved to Georgia and found safe haven in Pankisi Gorge. Since 1999, criminal situation in the Gorge deteriorated, cases of kidnapping, narco-trafficking and murders became more often. A 2003 report by Human Rights Watch about human rights in Georgia mostly concerns exactly the condition in Pankisi Gorge from the point of view of human rights.
- Kidnappings: The most prominent cases of kidnapping took place in the period between 2000 – 2002 and concern Petre Tsiskarishvili, an MP and a British banker, Peter Shaw. The latter spent 141 days in captivity. In 2001, two British businessmen, who spent more than a year in the Gorge, were freed after paying a sizable amount as a ransom. The suspect in organizing these three incidents, Shota Chichiashvili, was arrested in 2003 and was sentenced to 22 years in prison. He was freed in 2013 on the basis of amnesty.
- Illegal arms trade: According to the HRW report, in certain cases, the Government was participating in the criminogenic situation in Pankisi itself, especially when it comes to the illegal weapons trade from Pankisi Gorge to Chechnya. HRW’s questions addressed to the Government were connected with the testimony by Aiub Paikaev, who claimed that the arms trade was taking place with the protection of the Ministry of Security.
- Bombings of Georgia by Russia and a threat of subsequent intervention: Due to the Pankisi Gorge situation, Russia was accusing Georgia of supporting the Chechen rebels, therefore it wanted to place Russian troops in the Gorge. With this motive, Russia bombed Pankisi Gorge on August 23, 2002. On September 12, 2002, Vladimir Putin addressed the Secretary General of the United Nations, members of the UN Security Council and the leaders of OSCE with a letter, where he accused Shevardnadze of inaction with respect to Pankisi Gorge and threatened with adopting respective measures in case of inefficiency from the Government of Georgia.
Train and Equip program
Georgia Train and Equip Program (GTEP), with a budget worth USD 64 million, began on May 27, 2002 and was implemented in several phases.
As a result of GTEP, Armed Forces of Georgia significantly increased its capacity in the direction of combined operations implementation; abilities and skills of conducting anti-terrorist operations were improved and strengthened. Approximately 2,600 Georgian soldiers went through training in the framework of GTEP.
The Russian narrative
The message that Georgia represents a haven and a transit for terrorists is a part of the Russian narrative. The Foreign Minister of Russia, Sergey Lavrov stated on several occasions that the so-called “Islamic State” owns training bases in Pankisi and that the Gorge has a direct connection with ISIS, which Lavrov portrays as a national threat to Russia.