Kists, ethnic Chechens from Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, have called on the authorities in Tbilisi to put measures in place to stop local youth being recruited to fight alongside the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria.
The Council of Elders made their appeal after two local teenagers, 16-year-old Muslim Kushtanashvili and 18-year-old Ramzan Bagakashvili, reportedly traveled to Turkey in order to cross the border into Syria to join IS militants. The pair were last seen in Pankisi on April 2, according to the Civil.ge website.
Bagakashvili's mother told reporters that police said her son had taken a flight from the airport in Tbilisi to Turkey. The family later received a text message from Bagakashvili, who said he was in Turkey.
Russia's Kommersant newspaper reported that the Kist elders had asked the Georgian authorities not to issue passports to young ethnic Chechens in Georgia, until the applicants' identities had been verified by members of their immediate family, ideally the parents.
However, the Georgian Justice Ministry told Kommersant that this policy was unfeasible. "Every adult citizen has the right to obtain a passport and no other documentation apart from an ID card or a birth certificate is required for this," a ministry spokesman told Kommersant.
According to Kommersant, under current arrangements between Georgia and Turkey, Georgian citizens can cross the border into Turkey by presenting an electronic ID card.
A 'Hotbed Of Radicalism'?
The headline for Kommersant's story about the two Pankisi teenagers who are thought to have traveled to join IS in Syria -- "In Georgia, radical Islamists are more active: IS recruits sought in Pankisi" -- reflects the dominant theme in Russian and some Western reporting about the ethnic Chechen population of the gorge.
Russia has played up Pankisi's image as a hotbed of Islamist militant recruitment, especially after the role played by Russian-speaking and particularly Chechen militants in the fighting in Syria began to come under the media spotlight. In part, Russia's response of focusing on Pankisi has been a way of deflecting the blame for radicalization away from "homegrown" North Caucasian groups -- which pro-Kremlin Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov insists he has crushed -- and onto foreign groups in Georgia.
The "Pankisi Gorge as IS recruiting ground" theme has also emerged as a result of the sudden rise to notice of a handful of Kist militants, most notably IS's military emir in Syria, Umar al-Shishani, who is from Pankisi. While Umar al-Shishani was a conscript in the Georgian Army, some news reports have emphasized that he was possibly trained by officers who may have been trained by Americans.
While Umar al-Shishani has all but disappeared from the headlines and from social media -- there have been rumors of his demise, though pro-IS accounts on social media insist he is still alive -- the concerns that Pankisi youth are being targeted by IS recruiters have not completely waned.
Is There More IS Recruitment In Pankisi?
Michael Hikari Cecire, a Black Sea and Eurasia regional analyst and an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, says that there is "certainly a perception in some quarters in Pankisi that the problem is getting worse and not better."
"However, this is partially due to the fact that last fall there was a spike in Pankisi fatalities in Syria and Iraq, particularly surrounding the battle for Kobani. Most of the recent fatalities were young men whose families were often unaware that their children were even fighting for militant formations and instead thought they were in Turkey for work. So Pankisi has seen a steady drumbeat of bad news on this front, which is what prompted the Council of Elders to call for more government action," Cecire tells RFE/RL.
However, as with other ethnic groups from across the former Soviet Union, it is impossible to know how many Kists are actually being recruited to IS, according to Cecire.
"In a number of well-documented cases, there have been third countries involved -- often Turkey, Austria, Germany, Russia -- where there are large diaspora Chechen populations. Pankisi's perceived radicalization problem may simply be a reflection of a much larger, wider issue that also plagues (arguably to a greater degree) Europe, Russia, Turkey, and nearby Azerbaijan," Cecire says.
Evidence from social media and -- albeit to a lesser extent -- news reports shows that ethnic Chechens fighting in Syria are coming from the North Caucasus as well as from the Chechen diaspora in Europe, most noticeably from Austria and Germany.
Could the Georgian government really stop the outflow of new recruits from Pankisi, as the Council of Elders would like? Cecire says it would be hard for Tbilisi to clamp down on Kists who travel to join groups like IS if their own families are not aware that their relatives are going to Syria.
A similar problem is being faced by other countries, including Britain, where there has been a recent spate of young people -- including teenage girls -- traveling to join IS in Syria without their parents' knowledge.
Preventing radicalized young people from traveling to Syria is problematic, including for Georgia.
While the Georgian government could impose unofficial bans on Georgian Kists traveling abroad -- something Cecire says has reportedly happened in the past ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia -- this would not be fruitful and may even be counterproductive.
"This only fuels resentment and cuts off Pankisi youth from much-needed outlets for potential employment (and the remittances that come with it). This could even have the effect of making the valley even more fertile for radicalization while doing little to stem fighter flow, as the Georgia-Turkey border is relatively porous outside of official crossing points," Cecire says.
Rather than banning Kists from traveling abroad, the government should look to developing the Pankisi Gorge, he says. "What Pankisi needs are targeted economic development and jobs programs; recreational facilities for youth; and concerted efforts to promote cross-ethnic inclusiveness between Kists and the wider Georgian population, from which many in Pankisi feel alienated. This would go much further than arbitrary restrictions on Kists' freedom of movement," Cecire concludes.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk