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Georgian authorities and Grozny Mayor Muslim Khuchiyev have denied holding secret security talks in Georgia. Khuchiyev was recorded by journalists from Rustavi 2 at a hotel in Batumi, fuelling speculation his visit was related to recent counterterror operations in Georgia.
Georgian TV channel Rustavi 2 reported on 22 January that they had caught Khuchiyev, a close affiliate of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, on camera in the Black Sea resort city of Batumi. The visit comes soon after counter-terror operations in Tbilisi and Pankisi which involved a number of Chechen and Georgian suspects.
According to them, Khuchiyev held meetings with officials in both Batumi and Tbilisi, but the meetings were kept secret, and which Georgian officials Khuchiyev allegedly met with has not been revealed.
Khuchiyev’s Georgian-speaking attendants, identified by Rustavi 2 as his security guards, prevented their journalists from filming him as he entered a lift in Batumi’s Hilton Hotel.
Voice of America’s Georgian service cited a source in the Batumi Hilton as saying that Khuchiyev was being guarded by the Special State Protection Service of Georgia. This has been officially denied by the service.
On 23 January Rustavi 2 said they had clarified that Davit Jashitashvili, the founder of oil firm GD Oil, had hosted Khuchiyev, adding that he ‘might have held meetings’ with Georgian officials.
The broadcaster also talked to Jashitashvili’s mother, who said Khuchiyev was her son’s friend, and he was on a private visit to Georgia ‘as a guest’.
RFE/RL’s Ekho Kavkaza quoted Khuchiyev on 24 January as advising journalists ‘not to create fantasies’ about his visit in Georgia, claiming he has been on official leave since early January. Grozny Mayor’s Office confirmed Khuchiyev’s visit to Georgia, but insisted it was ‘unofficial’. The Chechen official left Georgia the same day he was spotted.
Georgia’s Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia told journalists on 23 January it was the first he had heard of Khuchiyev’s visit.
It comes in the wake of a number of controversial counterterrorism operations and arrests in Georgia, highlighting the supposed threat of returning fighters in the country.
[Read on OC Media: Questions in Pankisi, after Georgian Security Services kill teen]
On 25 December, a month after the November counterterror siege in Tbilisi, during which high-ranking Islamic State fighter Akhmed Chatayev blew up himself, Russian state-funded media Russia Today quoted Chechnya’s head Ramzan Kadyrov as saying they had information that ‘several shaitans [devils], who were sent to conduct terrorist attacks in the Chechen Republic, have reached Georgia’.
‘We are waiting for them, and as soon as they cross the border, we will immediately take them or destroy them’, he added.
Khuchiyev’s visit has also been controversial because was named by Georgian officials at the time as one of the coordinators of Russian forces during the 2008 August War. This raised questions as to why he was allowed to enter the country.
Interior Minister Gakharia and Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani said that Khuchiyev is not blacklisted from entering Georgia. Tsulukiani blamed the former ruling party, the United National Movement, for not adding Khuchiyev’s name to the blacklist, and said the Interior Ministry would now examine whether to include him.