Georgia: Government Closes Border Checkpoint With Azerbaijan

Radio Free Europe, Czech Republic
May 31 2004

Georgia: Government Closes Border Checkpoint With Azerbaijan, Sends
Police Reinforcements To South Ossetia

By Jean-Christophe Peuch

The Georgian government in recent months has taken a series of
measures aimed at curbing the trafficking of goods from neighboring
Armenia and Azerbaijan. It has also ordered new checkpoints to be set
up to stop the inflow of contraband goods through the breakaway
Republic of South Ossetia. Tbilisi on 30 May decided to move a step
further in its fight against smugglers.

Prague, 31 May 2004 (RFE/RL) — Georgia has decided to temporarily
restrict border trade with Azerbaijan in a bid to curb illegal trade
with its southeastern neighbor.

New regulations were finalized yesterday by the National Security

They include closure of the so-called Red Bridge checkpoint, in the
southeastern Kvemo Kartli region, where four policemen were wounded
yesterday while trading fire with suspected smugglers.

Addressing reporters at a press briefing late yesterday, Georgian
security officials said illegal trade with Azerbaijan has presented
long-standing problems for the national economy. They said closure of
Red Bridge — which is the main checkpoint between the two countries
— should help law-enforcement forces restore control over all border

The chairman of the Georgian Parliament’s committee for defense and
security affairs, Givi Targamadze, said that law-enforcement agencies
may be able to resolve the trafficking crisis within a few weeks,
hinting that similar operations may be conducted in the near future.

“I believe this problem could be solved within approximately one
month,” Targamadze said. “If there is a need to perform security
operations [such as the one conducted on 30 May], we should be given
the opportunity to do so. We must once and for all get free access to
Red Bridge and nearby [ethnic] Azerbaijani territories.”

Authorities in Tbilisi have noted a recent increase in illegal border
traffic through Kvemo Kartli, where most of Georgia’s ethnic
Azerbaijanis live. They say smugglers operating along the border have
created a criminal enclave that has become inaccessible to
law-enforcement agencies.”If smugglers want to fight us with bare
fists, we will respond in kind. But if they want to use their
weapons, we will respond with fire.” — Georgian Interior Minister

Georgia’s Deputy Security Minister Gigi Ugulava yesterday blamed
former Kvemo Kartli Governor Levan Mamaladze for making the region
open to illegal border trade with Azerbaijan.

Mamaladze was dismissed from his post after President Eduard
Shevardnadze resigned last November. Facing corruption charges, the
former Kvemo Kartli governor fled to Russia, where he is still
believed to be hiding.

Yesterday’s operation took place in the villages of Ponichala and
Karajala, which Georgian law-enforcement agencies claim have become
major regional smuggling hubs.

Early yesterday, some 200 special police forces raided Ponichala,
Karajala, and other nearby border villages, reportedly seizing
weapons, ammunition, explosives, drugs, jewelry, and other contraband

Georgian media report the dawn security sweep also resulted in the
arrest of an unspecified number of people.

Authorities in Tbilisi said suspected smugglers opened fire on
law-enforcement personnel, slightly wounding four of them.

Local residents in return complained about the strong-arm tactics,
saying police officers searched houses without proper warrants.

The new Georgian government, which has vowed to put an end to
corruption and other financial crimes, has recently taken steps to
restore control over border traffic with Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Soon after President Mikheil Saakashvili’s election last January,
security officials closed contraband paths leading from Armenia to
the border village of Sadakhlo, some 30 kilometers west of Red

Located close to the point where the borders of all three South
Caucasus countries meet, Sadakhlo has long been the site of a major
wholesale market.

Because of the unsolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, there are no
direct trade links between Azerbaijan and Armenia. But residents from
both countries come to Sadakhlo to trade goods, including products
manufactured in Turkey and Iran.

Armenian authorities have complained that Sadakhlo has become a major
contraband center and that the giant open-air market there should be
closed. But regional experts believe Sadakhlo’s closure would be an
unpopular move, since it is one of the main sources of goods for
ordinary people in the region.

International experts believe a substantial amount of Afghan-produced
narcotics meant for European markets transit through Sadakhlo and Red

Other major smuggling routes are believed to pass through Georgia’s
separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The Georgian Interior Ministry today said it has sent police
reinforcements into the South Ossetian area, which is formally under
the control of Russian peacekeepers.

Interior Minister Giorgi Baramidze explained the move today in
comments to reporters. He said the Russian Army general in charge of
South Ossetia’s peacekeeping operations had ordered the dismantling
of Georgian police checkpoints established there only last month.

Nabzdorov has denied any plans to remove Georgian checkpoints, saying
such a decision can be made only after consultations with Tbilisi.

South Ossetia claims these checkpoints represent a threat to its
security and testify to Georgia’s eagerness to impose an economic
blockade on the region, which it hopes to reclaim as part of its

Meanwhile, Baramidze today warned that Georgia would not hesitate to
use force to defend its interests.

“We are not planning to attack anyone. We’re only fighting
smugglers,” Baramidze said. “If smugglers want to fight us with bare
fists, we will respond in kind. But if they want to use their
weapons, we will respond with fire. We are here to defend the
interests of the Georgian government.”

Also today, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania said that the
decision to set up police checkpoints in the villages of Tkviavi,
Pkhvenisi, Nikozi, and Eredvi has helped cut off the main smuggling
route from Vladikavkaz, the capital of Russia’s Northern Ossetia

Zhvania also said any attempt at preventing his government from
fighting illegal trade through South Ossetia would be “fruitless.”