Moscow’s allegation that Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge is a playground for Islamic State fighters is spreading worry in Tbilisi, which recently has gone to great lengths to improve ties with its big, northern neighbor after severing diplomatic relations in 2008.
“Reports are coming in that the Islamic State of Levant and Syria fighters are using this remote territory to train, rest and restock their supplies,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed during a January 27 press-conference. He did not substantiate or elaborate about the allegation, which came amidst a discussion of the obstacles for restoring diplomatic ties with Georgia and removing visa requirements for Georgian citizens.
In Lavrov’s telling, Islamic terrorist activity in the Pankisi Gorge, a reclusive valley inhabited by Kists, a Muslim people related to Chechens, prompted Russia to impose visas on Georgia in 2000. The problem is still there, said Lavrov. His boss, Russian President Vladimir Putin, stated earlier that Russia was ready to scrap visa requirements for Georgians.
The Russian minister’s comment alarmed many in Tbilisi, which long has maintained that Moscow uses Pankisi as an excuse for hostile actions against Georgia. In 2002, the Georgian government and its allies charged that Russia conducted repeated bombing raids in the Gorge against supposed Chechen rebels.The Kremlin denied it.
With an eye to the past, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili emphasized that Lavrov’s comments are not warranted. “The Georgian government exercises full control and today there is no terrorist threat coming from Pankisi,” he said, Georgian TV news reported. “A few dozen people went from there [to Syria] and are fighting alongside the Islamic State, but their return is subject to strict control and criminal prosecution is underway.”
Pankisi has produced a well-known field commander for ISIS, Abu-Omar al-Shishani (Omar the Chechen). and Pankisi parents have sought help from the Georgian government to stop ISIS from recruiting young fighters in the valley. However, ISIS reportedly has recruited much larger numbers in Russia.
For years, Moscow and Tbilisi have respectively played up and played down Pankisi as a security concern. The issue has been at the heart of Georgia’s efforts to shed the control Russia tries to maintain over its ex-Soviet neighborhood.
Pankisi was in the spotlight back in 2000, during Russia's second Chechen war, when Moscow singled out Georgia as the only member of the ex-Soviet club, the Commonwealth of Independent States, to need visas for entering Russia. Rather than ISIS terrorists, the Kremlin claimed that Chechen rebels were using the mountainous area to launch attacks across the border into Russian territory.
Georgian-Russian relations went from bad to worse since then; mainly because of Tbilisi’s push toward the West and away from Moscow. Tbilisi’s arduous diplomacy of the past couple of years produced a patina of rapprochement, but amidst signs that Moscow still considers Georgia a ball in play in its competition with the West for influence.
Suspicions about Russian-sponsored, anti-Western propaganda persist, and the revived focus on Pankisi has added to them.
“We know the Russians, we know their methods and their propaganda methods and techniques, so when Russia talks Pankisi, we should be vigilant,” advised seasoned Georgian diplomat Tedo Japaridze, vice-president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and a member of Georgia’s ruling coalition. They may talk about the terrorism threat, he said, but “Russia, Lavrov, Petrov or Ivanov may have completely different intentions.”