In a politically-charged statement, the former President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili has blamed the Georgian government for what he says are "hundreds" of Georgian nationals fighting in Syria with the Islamic State (IS) militant group.
In remarks on January 13 that have been extensively reported in Russian state and pro-Kremlin media, Saakashvili told Georgia's private Rustavi 2 TV channel that the Tbilisi government was turning a blind eye to the fact that its citizens are fighting in Syria.
"Several hundred Georgian citizens have been sent to Syria. The Georgian government, which pulls a face about the fact that Georgians are voluntarily fighting in Ukraine, calling them provocateurs, mercenaries and agents of the National Movement [Saakashvili's reformist political party, which favors closer ties with NATO and the EU], does not say a word about the fact that Georgians, with the help of a variety of tricks, are being dragged to fight in Syria. Naturally, this is not in Georgia's interests," Saakashvili told the TV channel from his home in the United States, where he lives in exile.
Saakashvili's remarks came after the Georgian Defense Ministry issued a statement in December attributing blame for the death of a Georgian volunteer fighter in Ukraine, Aleksandr "Aleko" Grigolashvili, who had been fighting with Ukrainian forces in the eastern Ukrainian town of Schastye in Luhansk province. The ministry said that the responsibility for Grigolashvili's death lay with "representatives of the former Georgian authorities." The former Georgian president did not offer any additional information regarding his sources for the number of Georgians fighting in Syria, nor did he explain his remark that Georgians were being "sent" to the Middle Eastern country.
It is not known exactly how many Georgian citizens are fighting in Syria. However, there is no evidence to suggest that the numbers are anything like as large as Saakashvili says. 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 between 50 and 60. A September report by RFE/RL's Georgian service included an interview with a Pankisi resident who said that he knew "at most 10" locals who had gone to Syria and claimed they had done so in order to help Syrians.
Regardless of these small numbers, the question of Georgian citizens fighting in Syria with the Islamic State group and other Islamist militants is already a highly charged political issue, both in Georgia and in the Russian Federation.
In recent months, a number of Western media reports have described Georgia's Pankisi Gorge and its ethnic Chechen Kist community as a "hotbed of radicalization" even though local residents have denied that this is the case. The intense media interest in Pankisi led to complaints from residents.
"We are trying to present a different image of Pankisi, our traditions and the beautiful nature all around. But journalists are just interested in what they call 'terrorists'," one woman told Eurasianet in November.
Pankisi's connections with Syria has also been emphasized in the Russian media. However, some outlets have noted denials of radicalization from Pankisi residents. A November report by Russia's Vzglyad website cited comments by one source in Pankisi who said that most residents of the gorge are opposed to their relatives being involved in "foreign wars."
The main reason that the Pankisi Gorge has been in the media spotlight despite the relatively small numbers of militants it has produced -- especially compared with Western countries like the United Kingdom and Germany -- is because of the disproportionate prominence of a handful of Pankisi militants, particularly Umar Shishani, the Islamic State group's military commander in Syria.
Meanwhile, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who initially denied that ethnic Chechens were fighting in Syria at all, has insisted that most of the militants labeled as Chechens in Syria are from the diaspora in Europe. A Chechen court has recently sentenced a Georgian national from Pankisi to six years in prison for recruiting Chechens to fight in Syria. (The defendant's lawyer maintains that her client was framed by the security authorities.)
-- Joanna Paraszczuk