Georgian lawmakers from both the ruling coalition and the opposition have expressed their support for proposed new legislation that will make fighting in, or calling on others to fight in, illegal armed groups abroad punishable by a prison term.
The new legislation, seen as part of the Georgian government's attempts to fight against terrorism, was announced by Georgian Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani on January 13 and will be considered by parliament in the near future.
The proposed amendments to the law come amid reports that Georgian nationals are fighting in Ukraine and Syria.
MP Ani Mirotadze from the ruling Georgian Dream coalition told the Caucasian Knot website on January 19 that tightening the law against Georgian nationals who fight abroad in illegal armed groups, will "serve as a prevention, so that people reflect properly on what are doing."
Irakli Sesiashvili, the chairman of the Georgian Parliamentary Committee on Defense and Security, said that the proposed legislation would protect Georgians from "the dangers that a person who participates in terrorism can bring."
Zurab Japaridze of the United National Movement, Georgia's main center-right party and the country's largest opposition party, also supported the bill, saying that it was about "people involved in terrorist groups," but pointed out that the law could be interpreted to include Georgian citizens participating in combat operations in Ukraine.
Georgians In Syria, Georgians In Ukraine
Others in Georgia have expressed concerns over whether Georgians fighting in Ukraine would be punishable under the new legislation.
Justice Minister Tsulukiani said on January 13 that the legislation would only concern Georgian citizens fighting in Ukraine if they were involved in the activities of illegal armed groups.
A former Georgian army intelligence officer and volunteer fighter in Ukraine's Luhansk region, Irakli Kurasbediani, told the Apsny.ge website on January 14 that Georgians fighting in Ukraine should not be equated with those fighting in Syria.
"We are in absolutely legal formations in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. We are radically different from Syria. [Syria] is clearly a place of terrorism. The whole civilized world knows what they do and what we do," Kurasbediani said.
The questions and debate over how the proposed new legislation would differentiate between Georgians fighting in Syria and Ukraine comes amid Georgian and Russian criticism and controversy about both groups.
In a heated statement on January 13 that was widely reported in Russian state and pro-Kremlin media, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili blamed the Georgian government for what he said were "hundreds" of Georgians fighting in Syria with the Islamic State (IS) militant group.
Saakashvili's comments came in response to a December statement issued by the Georgian Defense Ministry, who blamed the death of a Georgian volunteer fighter in Ukraine, Aleksandr "Aleko" Grigolashvili, on "representatives of the former Georgian authorities."
Moscow, meanwhile, has sought to downplay the number of Russian nationals from the Northern Caucasus in Syria. In a recent radio interview, Ilya Rogachev, the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Department for New Challenges and Threats, blamed Georgia for the phenomenon of Chechen militants fighting with IS in Syria and said that Kists from the Pankisi Gorge were "among the most prominent warlords who already proved themselves with IS."
Georgians Fighting (And Dying) In Syria
Beyond the political fighting over Georgians fighting in Syria and Ukraine, the Georgian government's move to introduce the new legislation comes after reports that a number of Georgian citizens have been killed fighting in Syria.
On December 26, reports emerged that a young man from the Pankisi Gorge, named as Israpil Chatiashvili, had been killed in Syria. Local residents in the Pankisi village of Birkiani -- also the hometown of the IS military commander in Syria, Umar Shishani -- confirmed Chatiashvili's death.
That report came after news that a 21-year-old Georgian militant, Zelimkhan Chatiashvili, also from Birkiani, had been killed while fighting alongside IS fighters in the Syrian town of Kobani.
It is not known whether Zelimkhan Chatiashvili and Israpil Chatiashvili were related.
It is unclear how many Georgians are fighting in Syria, but there is no evidence to suggest that numbers are large. According to Russian state news outlet Rossiiskaya Gazeta, there are between 50 and 100 Georgians from Pankisi in Syria, while local residents in Georgia put the numbers as between 50 and 60.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk