In the depths of the Pankisi Gorge, a natural fortress in the mountains of northern Georgia shielded from the outside world by its sheer rock walls, kidnappers are holding an Orthodox monk and demanding $1 million for his release. The kidnapping has provoked a public outcry and highlighted the disintegration of Georgia.
Demonstrators gathered last week at the entrance of the gorge, which is controlled by Chechen battle commanders, to protest against the abduction of Father Basili Machitadze. They are demanding the Georgian government reassert its authority over the Pankisi, which is among several large enclaves in Georgia that is no longer under central government control.
Kidnappings are not uncommon in Georgia, but Father Basili, a hermit, has become a popular figure since he was taken by gunmen on 19 November. In addition to the 50 protesters, three Orthodox monks have been holding a vigil at the mouth of the gorge to demand his release.
Nobody quite knows who is holding him–though the most likely candidate is one of three Chechen military commanders with bases in the Pankisi–but his kidnapping and the inability of the government in the capital, Tbilisi, to do anything about it is only the latest symptom of the fragmentation of Georgia, a nation of five million, which has rapidly gathered pace over the past three months.
While international attention has been focused on Afghanistan, Georgia has slithered towards disintegration. It has been a patchwork of competing authorities since soon after independence 10 years ago.
Abkhazia, an enclave on Georgia’s Black Sea coast, won effective independence in 1993 after a savage little war. South Ossetia, an impoverished region in northern Georgia, had done the same after heavy fighting a year earlier. No peace treaties have been signed with either of these breakaway regions. Tbilisi is technically in a state of war with both.
As things fall apart on the periphery of Georgia there are also signs that the centre will not hold. Georgian politics have always been rough. Last July Georgi Sanaya, one of the best- known journalists in the country and news presenter for the commercial Rustavi-2 television channel, was shot dead.
The same television station was at the centre of a crisis in October. A politically inspired raid by the tax police on its studios led to thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets and the Georgian President, Eduard Shevardnadze, sacking his government. The former Soviet foreign minister, 73, says he will stay until his term expires in 2005 but he is looking increasingly beleaguered.
Georgian governments tend to see the hand of Russia behind many of their difficulties.
The kidnapping of father Basili underlines that the Pankisi Gorge is one more part of the country where the government has lost control. But while foreign governments and media remain absorbed by Afghanistan the disintegration of the country shows little sign of evoking outside interest.