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Moscow Babylon March 6, 2002
The Pankisi Whore
By Mark Ames Browse author Email
Page 3 of 7
Pasha didn't tell me anything that wasn't already out there, but it's the way he put it that I like: the Pankisi Gorge problem is all a question of dirty money. I remember what a high-placed Russian friend once said: there's always much less than meets-the-eye in FSU politics.

We know from the last Chechen War what role profit plays in defining Russian and Chechen war aims -- lawlessness means profits. State and military budget funds are allocated and vanish, military equipment and provisions are sold, villagers are kidnapped and ransomed, villages are forced to bribe their way out of military assaults, and so on. "A good business" indeed.

* * *

Khizri Almadov, the representative of Aslan Maskhadov's unrecognized Chechen government-in-exile in Tblisi, told me, "There are no mujadeen terrorists in Pankisi. None at all. No Besaev, no Khattab, and no Gelaev."

As he said this, I felt that Chechens might indeed be flying out of my butt. It was not pleasant.

I was in his office/embassy, on the fifth floor of a nearly-condemned Brezhnev-era office building which featured the rankest shit-smeared bathrooms I'd ever witnessed in the Commonwealth of Idiotic States. Almadov's half of the corridor was guarded by a zombie-eyed Chechen bodyguard in track suit pants and a black leather jacket, and another Chechen fireplug in black leather jacket and street hat. A large flag of Ichkeria was draped behind Almadov's desk. He's a legend among journalists, a man who doesn't suffer for words or quotes.

"I'm in the Georgian press more than Sheverdnadze," Almadov boasted. "When I'm on the cover, I get most of the page; Sheverdnadze is usually a small little box in the corner."

I asked him if it bothered him that almost no one, not even the Georgians, had officially recognized Chechen independence or their genocide.

"They don't need to officially recognize it. They invite me to Parliament all the time and treat me like a hero. There are some things you don't need to say officially."

Almadov's office is located right next door to the Georgian Interior Ministry headquarters. It was widely reported that the Georgian Interior Ministry was so corrupt that it was one of the main perpetrators of kidnappings in Pankisi in cahoots with local Chechens and Kist. It also split control of the drug and gun running. Sheverdnadze was eventually forced to fire the Interior Minister last fall as a pre-condition towards closer cooperation with the American military.

Sheverdnadze is himself considered the most venal, corrupt Georgian to have ever lived by nearly everyone I met. He is the degraded incarnation of Everything Gone Wrong. Last November anti-Sheverdnadze riots shook Tblisi following the murder of a well-known investigative reporter. Sheverdnadze fired his cabinet, bided his time until the protesters lost heart, then hired the cabinet back and returned to doing that voodoo that he doo-doo so well... only now, with American military backing.

Pasha claimed he had information that Sheverdnadze has stolen some $8 billion during his term, in a country where teachers make six dollars a month, and gas, water and electricity outages are a daily event. Similar claims are made by insiders and outsiders everywhere. Under Sheverdnadze, Georgia has devolved into something between Haiti and feudal Muscovy, even though given its charm, beauty, food and culture, it should be a Portugal or Sicily. All the wealth is said to be concentrated in the hands of a single clan numbering several dozen, leaving nothing for the rest... a scale of corruption so savage that even human rights organizations complain about it, making Russia look downright progressive by comparison.

Sheverdnadze has also been one of the Chechen separatists' best friends, at times even taunting the Russians with his support of them. The Pankisi is known to be the supply route through which weapons bought from Turkey are sent to Chechen fighters who battle Russians.

A pattern emerges: a massively corrupt Sheverdnadze coddling Chechen separatists, who, with a rep office headquartered beside the notoriously crime-infested Interior Ministry, rule over a gorge known as one of the most crime-friendly slivers of land in the known underworld. The Georgians and Chechens have been making a killing off the drug, weapons, and kidnapping trade. The Russians also want that miserable ditch to expand their turf and their cut, and have been close to invading to take it. Chechnya can't feed everyone.

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