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Russian-Origin Muslims in Georgia
Russian-Origin Muslims in Georgia
Residents of Pankisi Gorge pray during the rally held to stop the planned construction of a hydropower plant near Birkiani village, Georgia, 21 April 2019. REUTERS/Ekaterina Anchevskaya
Special Coverage

Russian-Origin Muslims in Georgia

Georgia, once a favourite destination for Muslims leaving Russia, has tightened its border controls of late in response to security concerns. Tbilisi should review these policies to make sure they do not undermine the open society it has been building for the last three decades. 

What’s new? In recent years, Georgia has become less welcoming to Russian-origin Muslims. Hardline policies make it very difficult for most people of North Caucasian origin to enter the country. Those inside the country worry about Tbilisi’s secretive security services and its heavy-handed tactics.

Why does it matter? While Georgia is responding to real security concerns, its current approach risks over-correcting for past problems, incorporates too little oversight of security services and may alienate indigenous Muslims who already feel they have been poorly treated.

What should be done? Georgia should ensure that its security services are subject to appropriate oversight and work with foreign partners to provide economic support to struggling indigenous Muslim communities.

I. Overview

Even as many Russians flock to Georgia, whether as immigrants or on holiday, Tbilisi has made seemingly conscious decisions to make people from the North Caucasus, in particular, less welcome than before through stringent regulations and checks. Meanwhile, Georgia’s own Muslim citizens have also been caught up in the cycle of distrust.

Authorities say their policies are intended to secure Georgia, and also to reassure outside powers, including both Russia and Western countries, that the country cannot be used as a staging ground for terrorist activity or a transit point for those en route to carry out terrorist acts elsewhere. In many ways, the rules are a response to security threats the country has faced over the past 30 years. But the steps Georgia has taken risk over-correction, with Russian-origin Muslims turned away arbitrarily at the border, and those inside Georgia feeling vulnerable at the hands of the state’s increasingly heavy-handed and unaccountable security services. At a minimum, in line with continuing democratic reform efforts, Tbilisi should engage with civil society and human rights organisations to make systems more transparent.

This paper is part of a series that Crisis Group is publishing on the situation of the Russian-origin Muslim diaspora in various countries where its members have settled or, in the case of Georgia, largely been denied access. It considers measures that can be taken to help diaspora communities and host countries thrive as the former build lives outside Russia. Other entries in the series explore the origins, evolution and status of the Russian-origin Muslim population in Turkey, Ukraine and Western European countries (with a focus on Germany, Austria and France). The series draws on well over 100 interviews, virtual and in person, with migrants, authorities, civil society figures and experts in destination and transit countries as well as in Russia. It pairs insights from these interviews with data gleaned from academic literature, media reporting and NGO accounts. It also benefits from Crisis Group’s years of fieldwork in many of the countries concerned, including Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and Turkey.

II. Historical Overview

Georgia, located just south of Russia’s North Caucasus region, would seem an attractive destination for prospective migrants on multiple levels. The Russian language is widely used, the cuisine is familiar and the climate is temperate – all of which make the country appealing to a broad range of Russians as a place to spend a vacation or to relocate.[fn]Russia is Georgia’s top source of international tourists. More than one million Russian tourists visited Georgia in 2018 and 2019. See the annual reports of the Georgian National Tourism Agency. Russia also sends to Georgia more new permanent residents and citizens than any other foreign country. Between 2005 and 2013, over 5,800 Russian citizens obtained permanent residence in Georgia and more than 37,000 obtained Georgian passports. The countries in second and third place, Turkey and Israel, respectively, contributed fewer than 3,500 new citizens each. See “Statistical Information on Foreign Citizens Been Granted the Citizenship of Georgia, Residence Permit or the Status of a Refugee in 2005-2013”, Institute for Development of Freedom of Information, 1 September 2014.Hide Footnote Indigenous Muslims make up over 10 per cent of the country’s population.[fn]“2014 General Population Census: Main Results”, National Statistics Office of Georgia, 28 April 2016.Hide Footnote Some of these groups have historical and cultural ties to North Caucasus communities.

Georgia has been a favoured destination for Muslims leaving Russia

For all these reasons, Georgia has been a favoured destination for Muslims leaving Russia. The second Chechen war brought nearly 8,000 refugees from Russia to Georgia in the early 2000s. Coming mainly from southern Chechnya, they crossed the Caucasus mountains to flee the fighting.[fn]“Silence Kills: Abuse of Chechen Refugees in Georgia”, Human Rights Information and Documentation Centre, 2006, p. 4.Hide Footnote Among them were ethnic Kists who had settled in Chechnya during the Soviet period. By crossing the border, they sought to join relatives among the Kist living in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge region.[fn]Giorgi Anchabadze, “Republic of Georgia”, in A. Pliyev (ed.), Refugees and Internally Displaced People: Ethnic Stereotypes (Vladikavkaz, 2002), p. 35 (Russian).Hide Footnote Their arrival almost doubled the population of the Pankisi Gorge area.[fn]“Crisis of Ethnoculture and Safety of Society (The Pankisi Gorge)”, Caucasian Institute of Peace, Democracy and Development, 2003, p. 58 (Russian).Hide Footnote

The Georgian government did little or nothing to stop or monitor the refugee flows, thus completely missing that jihadist fighters and criminals were hidden (or not so hidden) among the displaced. For these armed men, Pankisi became a new base of operations. Soon, authorities were alerted to the growth of arms and drug smuggling into and through the region. In addition, Pankisi-based actors kidnapped several Georgian citizens and foreigners for ransom.[fn]Anchabadze, “Republic of Georgia”, op. cit., pp. 35-36.Hide Footnote Russia, meanwhile, protested the presence of Chechen fighters, whom they wanted back in Russia, where they could be prosecuted and imprisoned.[fn]“Georgia yields to Russian pressure”, Civil.ge, 26 September 2001.Hide Footnote Tbilisi largely ignored Moscow’s demands, denying the presence of Chechen fighters in Georgia.

But by the fall of 2001, the situation was impossible to ignore. In late August, insurgents led by Chechen field commander Ruslan Gelaev, already in Pankisi, entered the Kodori Gorge in the breakaway region of Abkhazia, near the Russian border.[fn]Ibid. See also “Is Georgia preparing for a new war with Abkhazia?”, RFE/RL, 22 October 2001; and “Odnako”, Russian 1, 9 October 2001.Hide Footnote Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze confirmed the presence of “terrorists” on Georgian soil and voiced a willingness to work with Russia to fight them. Even so, Moscow alleged that Shevardnadze himself had agreed to and assisted Gelaev’s actions, intimating that he was cooperating with the insurgents against Russia.[fn]“Georgia yields to Russian pressure”, op. cit.; “Who attacked Abkhazia and why?”, RFE/RL, 12 October 2001; “Is Georgia preparing for a new war with Abkhazia?”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Despite Moscow’s threats to intervene, by early October, local and international media were reporting that Tbilisi had facilitated the movement of more Chechen insurgents from Pankisi to Kodori, with the latter planning to then attack targets in Russia.[fn]“Georgia: Chechen transfer operation exposed”, Institute of War and Peace Reporting, 12 October 2001.Hide Footnote

These events coincided with the 11 September 2001 attacks on the U.S., in the midst of which, according to U.S. intelligence, members of the Bin Laden network contacted affiliates in Georgia. The U.S. subsequently launched Georgia Train and Equip, or GTEP, an advisory and training program to assist Tbilisi in its anti-terror fight (it later morphed into a program to help prepare Georgian forces to serve in Afghanistan and Iraq). GTEP was announced in February 2002, and the first U.S. advisers arrived in March. In July, insurgents attacked Russian forces near the Georgian border. Moscow responded with airstrikes in the Pankisi Gorge, and Georgia launched a special operation of its own in the area, supported with GTEP assets.[fn]“Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge: Russian Concerns and U.S. Interests”, Congressional Research Service, 6 March 2003.Hide Footnote By early 2003, Tbilisi declared Pankisi free of foreign fighters, including al-Qaeda associates.[fn]“Security ministry unveils classified details on Pankisi”, Civil.ge, 20 January 2003.Hide Footnote

In the years that followed, refugees and sometimes fighters from the North Caucasus came and went. Few, with the exception of some male refugees and fighters who had married local, primarily Kist, women, stayed long-term. Georgia took pains to register them and maintain records, though not everyone participated in this voluntary process.[fn]“Chechen refugee numbers decrease”, Civil.ge, 7 March 2002.Hide Footnote Some were arrested in Georgia, but for the most part Tbilisi avoided extraditing Russian citizens to Russia in the face of Western and local civil society opposition to doing so on humanitarian grounds. That said, it did hand over five of the thirteen ethnic Chechen men Moscow sought in one high-profile case in 2002.[fn]“Silence Kills: Abuse of Chechen Refugees in Georgia”, op. cit.; “Shamayev and Others v. Georgia and Russia – 36378/02, European Court of Human Rights, April 2005.Hide Footnote

Tbilisi did not want a large population coming from Russia to stay

Tbilisi did not want a large population coming from Russia to stay. Thus, although Georgia avoided extraditing people wanted for crimes, it worked with Russia to repatriate people who posed no such concern. The two countries agreed to a repatriation program that began in 2002, and Russian officials visited to meet with Russian-origin migrants in Georgia and convince them to return. Although their efforts met with distrust at first, people eventually began to return to Russia or move on to third countries.[fn]“Chechen refugee numbers decrease”, op. cit.; “Chechens say no to repatriation”, Civil.ge, 2 October 2003.Hide Footnote Since then, the numbers of Chechens have steadily declined. As of 2016, only about 230 were registered in the Pankisi Gorge.[fn]“Islam in Georgia: Policy and Integration”, Caucasian House, Tbilisi, 2016, p.16.Hide Footnote

Meanwhile, Georgia’s worries about migrants from the North Caucasus also extended to the Georgian citizens among whom they had sheltered. Indeed, both Tbilisi and Moscow (and perhaps also Washington) now viewed the population of Pankisi as indelibly linked to the North Caucasus insurgencies. Their worries grew when, inspired in part by fighters from Chechnya as well as religious leaders (some of whom had studied in the Middle East), young people in Pankisi began exploring Salafi ideologies.[fn]“Crisis of Ethnoculture and Safety of Society (The Pankisi Gorge)”, op. cit., pp. 76-87.Hide Footnote Georgian authorities, like those in Russia, were concerned that for some young people, at least, the study of Islam might lead to terrorism.

The new Georgian government that took power in 2003 took a firm hand in the area, with officials expressing worries about not only insurgency but also drug trafficking. Georgian police formed relationships with local Salafi groups to keep a close eye on them and other Muslims (later, authorities found themselves investigating many of these same people for Islamic State, or ISIS, ties).[fn]Olesya Vartanyan, “What does life in Pankisi look like?”, RFE/RL, 5 June 2010 (Russian).Hide Footnote But this additional attention and distrust may have increased tensions with Georgia’s indigenous Muslims. These communities, which were and remain among the more economically disadvantaged in Georgia, had long complained of disenfranchisement. Historically, the problems they reported included religious discrimination in employment and inadequate access to the political and governance processes. The government’s increased vigilance increased their sense that they were not fully seen as Georgians as well as their fear that some among their number would be accused of extremism.[fn]Maia Barkaia and Barbare Janelidze, “Under the Security Gaze: History, Politics and Religion in the Pankisi Gorge”, Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center (Tbilisi), 2018, pp. 8-9, 87-90; Sophie Zviadadze, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being Muslim and Georgian: Religious Transformation and Questions of Identity among Adjara’s Muslim Georgians”, REGION: Regional Studies of Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, vol. 7, no. 1 (January 2018), pp. 23-42; Alter Kahraman, “Azeris and Muslim Ajarians in Georgia: The Swing between Tolerance and Alienation”, Nationalities Papers, vol. 49, no. 2 (2020), pp. 308-325; Giorgi Goguadze and Sergi Kapanadze, “Daesh and Challenges Facing Georgia”, Georgia’s Reforms Associates, November 2015, pp. 12-14; “Islam in Georgia: Policy and Integration”, op. cit., pp. 15-19.Hide Footnote

Georgia’s approach to inflows of Russian-origin migrants shifted once more a couple of years after the 2008 Georgia-Russia war. In 2010, Tbilisi declared a new “united Caucasus” policy that aimed to build direct ties with Russia’s southern regions.[fn]Remarks of H.E. Mikheil Saakashvili, President of Georgia, on the 65th session of the United Nations General Assembly”, speech, website of the President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili, 24 September 2010.Hide Footnote Georgia exempted residents of the North Caucasus from the visa requirement then in place for Russian citizens as a whole. In addition, parliament formally recognised the 19th-century Russian Empire’s brutality against and ethnic cleansing of its Circassian (North Caucasian Muslim) population as a genocide and Tbilisi launched a Russian-language television channel to broadcast programs, including critiques of local authorities, into the North Caucasus.[fn]Ivlian Khaindrava, “Georgia’s North Caucasus Policy in the Context of the Post-August ‘New Realities’”, in “The North Caucasus Factor in the Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict Context”, International Alert, July 2012, pp. 77-85.Hide Footnote Tbilisi insisted that its North Caucasian policy was purely peaceful, but Russia, which continued to face unrest in the North Caucasus, saw it as feeding instability. From Russia’s perspective, Tbilisi’s new tack was particularly worrying in light of the forthcoming 2014 Sochi Olympics, which Moscow did not want disrupted, least of all by a terrorist attack.[fn]Samuel Charap and Cory Welt, “A More Proactive U.S. Approach to the Georgia Conflict”, Center for American Progress, February 2011, pp. 46-49.Hide Footnote

A 2012 crisis revealed that Chechen resistance networks were, once again, active in Georgia.[fn]“Report by the Public Council Established by the Public Defender about the Special Operation Conducted at the Village of Lapankuri in the Lopota Gorge on 28 August 2012”, Office of the Public Defender of Georgia, Tbilisi, 2014 (Georgian).Hide Footnote The episode began with a late August effort by seventeen fighters to enter Dagestan from Georgia’s Lapankuri region. The fighters had come to Georgia from various European countries: most were of Chechen or Ingush birth and had left Russia during the first and second Chechen wars.[fn]Ibid., pp. 19-23.Hide Footnote At least two, however, were natives of Pankisi who had moved to European countries more recently and then re-entered the country prior to this operation.[fn]“Georgians among Islamists killed near Russian border”, BBC, 3 September 2012.Hide Footnote

As Russia deployed more troops to its side of the border, the Georgian government asked the group to surrender. When they refused, Tbilisi ordered in special operations forces. In the combat that followed, most of the fighters were killed, as were two Georgian police officers and one doctor.[fn]“Saakashvili speaks of provocation attempt after deadly clash at border”, Civil.ge, 31 August 2012.Hide Footnote An ensuing investigation by the Georgian public defender and his associated expert council indicated, however, that surviving fighters had not been detained and had remained free to stay in Georgia, although all of them left within days.[fn]“Report by the Public Council Established by the Public Defender”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Akhmed Chataev, an alleged envoy of the Caucasus Emirate leadership in Western Europe, was among the fighters.[fn]“The last battle of ‘one-handed Akhmed’”, OC Media, 29 January 2018.Hide Footnote Having lost a leg in the battle, Chataev was arrested but soon released on bail by a Georgian court.[fn]Reg TV: ‘Akhmed Chatayev released’”, video, YouTube, 6 December 2012 (Georgian).Hide Footnote In the course of court hearings, Chataev reported that he had lived in Georgia for several years and had a local wife. He denied any involvement in organising the fighters. Rather, he said, senior officials of the Georgian security service had asked him to negotiate with the group.[fn]Gela Mtivlishvili, “Open Letter to Chief Prosecutor of Georgia, Archil Kbilashvili”, Human Rights in Georgia, 5 November 2012.Hide Footnote Chataev was acquitted. Some years later, he emerged as leader of a North Caucasian ISIS battalion in Syria.[fn]“Russian citizen linked to Lopota Gorge incident now heads IS battalion in Syria”, RFE/RL, 25 February 2015.Hide Footnote Turkish authorities eventually implicated him in the 2016 Istanbul airport bombings. He died in Georgia in 2017, besieged in an apartment building alongside fellow jihadists.[fn]“Wanted Chechen IS jihadist killed in Georgia siege”, BBC, 1 December 2017.Hide Footnote

III. ISIS and After

Weeks after the Lapankuri crisis, a new Georgian government backed away from most of the “united Caucasus” policy in favour of rebuilding some measure of cooperation with Russia, even as Tbilisi continued to pursue closer ties with Western countries.

Meanwhile, the growth of ISIS rendered Georgia a transit country for aspiring fighters and caliphate citizens on their way to Syria by way of Turkey. Mixed in were by some counts roughly 100 Georgians who also joined ISIS, most of them Kists from Pankisi, although a few were from the Adjara and Guria regions of Georgia.[fn]Goguadze and Kapanadze, “Daesh and Challenges Facing Georgia”, op. cit., p. 7.Hide Footnote In Syria and Iraq, Georgians and North Caucasians often fought together, in battalions comprising and led by people from the region. Two became senior ISIS commanders: Tarkhan Batirashvili, better known as Omar al-Shishani, and Tsezar Tokhosashvili, aka al-Bara Shishani.[fn]Bennett Clifford, “Georgian Foreign Fighter Deaths in Syria and Iraq: What Can They Tell Us about Foreign Fighter Mobilization and Recruitment?”, Caucasus Survey, vol. 6 (2018), pp. 62-80; “Ukraine detains top Islamic State commander”, RFE/RL, 15 November 2019.Hide Footnote

While Georgia’s definition of terrorism is not limited to violent political Islam ... its formal documents single out the North Caucasus as a region of concern

In response, the Georgian government introduced a two-pronged policy: a heavy hand at home to destroy any cells that might develop and a tightly controlled approach to its borders, to prevent foreigners with links to dangerous groups from entering Georgia. Both prongs are part of the country’s present-day counter-terrorism policy. Tbilisi has put its State Security Service in the lead, giving this body substantial powers of investigation, arrest, detention and other actions (including controls on financial transactions) against terrorist or suspected terrorist organisations, their members, and members’ family networks in physical space and online. While Georgia’s definition of terrorism is not limited to violent political Islam, there is a great deal of overlap, and its formal documents single out the North Caucasus as a region of concern.[fn]“National Strategy of Georgia on Fight against Terrorism”, State Security Service of Georgia, 2019.Hide Footnote

Domestically, Georgia counts the dozens of arrests and convictions of mostly Georgian and some foreign citizens over the course of recent years as a measure of its success.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Georgian lawyer, Tbilisi, February 2020. Also see the annual reports of the State Security Service of Georgia for 2015-2018, 2020. Georgian NGOs cite interviews with dozens of Georgian Muslim residents, who speak about arrests and fear of being prosecuted for extremism. See Barkaia and Janelidze, “Under the Security Gaze”, op. cit., pp. 89-90.Hide Footnote Occasionally, suspects (and others) die in the operations security forces undertake to apprehend them, and community members and human rights groups argue that authorities have arrested and killed innocent Georgian citizens. While official reports do not indicate religion or ethnicity, civil society groups report that those affected are disproportionately Muslims. At the same time, local authorities have also captured or killed numerous individuals implicated in attacks on diplomats, recruiters for travel to Syria, and those accused of links to Chataev and other known insurgents.[fn]“Murderer of the Russian diplomat detained in Georgia?”, Vestnik Kavkaza, 26 September 2013 (Russian); “Man arrested in Batumi shooting incident suspected of killing Russian diplomat in Sokhumi”, Civil.ge, 19 September 2013; “Four Persons Detained by MIA for Assistance in Joining the Terrorism Organisation of a Foreign State through Recruitment and Assistance in Terrorist Actions”, Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia, 15 June 2015; “Georgian Islamic State Suspect Denied Recruitment Activity”, Democracy and Freedom Watch, 27 February 2016; “Overview of the Flaws of the Ongoing Investigation of the Death of Temirlan Machalikashvili”, Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center (Tbilisi), 2018.Hide Footnote

Meanwhile, the security service maintains a list of people barred from entering Georgia, including for purposes of transit. When the list’s existence was first made public in 2015, it included almost 1,300 names.[fn]“The Report of the State Security Service of Georgia – 01.08.2015-31.12.2015”, p. 12.Hide Footnote But it grew quickly, and by 2017, the security service reported that there were “several thousand foreign nationals” forbidden entry to Georgia.[fn]“The Report of the State Security Service of Georgia – 01.01.2017-31.12.2017”, pp. 10, 12.Hide Footnote The list is classified, and the information on it is directly available only to the courts and public defender’s office, though others appear to have indirect access.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Georgian lawyer, Tbilisi, February 2020.Hide Footnote Since 2018, Georgia has also been sharing this information with the U.S. through a joint screening program that allows each country access to the other’s lists of known and suspected terrorists.[fn]“Agreement between the United States and Georgia: Exchange of Terrorist Screening Information”, U.S. State Department, 27 June 2017. Crisis Group has no information about what other countries might be part of this arrangement or have similar agreements of their own with Georgia.Hide Footnote

Tbilisi does not, however, share the list with Russia. Between 2012 and the Sochi Olympics in 2014, Russian and Georgian (and, at least once, de facto Abkhaz) security officials maintained persistent communication on counter-terrorism.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former senior Georgian officials and former senior de facto officials in Abkhazia, Tbilisi and Sukhumi, August 2017; February and August 2020.Hide Footnote Since then, however, this cooperation has dried up. Although both Moscow and some Georgian officials think a resumption would be valuable, occasional Russian accusations that Georgia is harbouring terrorist groups probably do not sit well with Tbilisi. That said, information exchanges via Interpol continue, and Georgian officials appear to take Russian accusations seriously.[fn]Nikolay Silaev and Andrey Sushentsov, “Georgia after Elections and Prospects for the Russian-Georgian Relations”, MGIMO, 2012, pp. 13-14; Crisis Group interviews, former senior Georgian official and Georgian expert, Tbilisi, January and February 2020. The Russian foreign minister often speaks about threats from Pankisi in his remarks to journalists. In early 2016, his comments provoked heated responses from Georgian officials. See “Sergey Lavrov’s Remarks and Answers to Media Questions at a News Conference on Russia’s Diplomacy Performance in 2015”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, 26 January 2016; “Tbilisi rejects Lavrov’s claim about IS training in Pankisi Gorge”, RFE/RL, 26 January 2016.Hide Footnote

The border service does not have direct access to the list of banned travellers. Instead, border officials are instructed to carry out particularly stringent inspections of travellers with documents that indicate North Caucasus regions as their place of birth or residence, including contacting the security service to ascertain whether they are on the list of banned travellers, adding delay to the process.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Georgian lawyer, Tbilisi, February 2020. For more about the work of the border guards, see “National Strategy of Georgia on Fight against Terrorism”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Since 2017, Georgia has also been taking part in an European Union-regulated program that provides authorities with passenger manifests for arriving and departing flights. Authorities also cross-check this information against their own lists.[fn]“National Strategy of Georgia on Fight against Terrorism”, op. cit., p. 8; “Country Reports on Terrorism 2019: Georgia”, U.S. State Department, 2019.Hide Footnote The Georgian security service reports that it rejected entry for over 1,800 travellers in 2015 and 2016.[fn]“The Report of the State Security Service of Georgia – 01.08.2015-31.12.2015”, p. 12; “The Report of the State Security Service of Georgia – 01.01.2016-31.12.2016”, p. 12.Hide Footnote More recent reports do not include figures.

The Georgian Security Service has tremendous leeway ... and faces very little oversight

The Georgian Security Service has tremendous leeway in and faces very little oversight of its counter-terrorism activity. Although the Georgian parliament has a formal supervisory role, members very rarely discuss these activities and hold no public hearings or briefings on these issues.[fn]See the memoranda of the Trust Group of the Georgian Parliament, which releases information about its meetings with State Security Service leaders.Hide Footnote A lawyer who has been engaged in terrorism-related cases said the Security Service is “more like a state within the state” with nearly unchecked power on issues within its purview.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Georgian lawyer, Tbilisi, February 2020.Hide Footnote Georgia’s official documents take pains to emphasise that their approaches draw on international legal principles, including those set forth in UN Security Council resolutions that call on states to prevent terrorist movement and activity and maintain records of suspects.[fn]“National Strategy of Georgia on Fight against Terrorism”, op. cit., p. 8. UN Security Council resolutions of interest include 2178 (24 September 2014) and 2396 (21 December 2017).Hide Footnote A former official involved in crafting these policies told Crisis Group that they were and are formulated in response to pressure from Western states to prevent terrorist transit and activity, including by Georgians.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former senior Georgian official, Tbilisi, February 2020.Hide Footnote

Whatever the reason, the border is extremely tight when it comes to individuals originally from the North Caucasus. Whether they are tourists, migrants, business travellers, or academics, they face hours-long delays, multiple interviews and the prospect of being turned away entirely each time they try to enter Georgia, as well as more questioning when they depart.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former resident of Georgia, Vienna, July 2021. Crisis Group staff are aware of numerous other individuals with personal experience of this phenomenon between 2017 and 2021.Hide Footnote

The hassle does not deter everyone from travelling: a small number (perhaps dozens) of Russian-origin Muslims who relocated from Turkey to Ukraine after 2016 report using Georgia as a temporary destination when they periodically leave Ukraine, in line with Kyiv’s three-month time limit on tourist stays.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from Dagestan (and former fighter in Syria), Tbilisi, January 2017.Hide Footnote Because Georgia, in contrast, allows tourists to remain in the country for up to one year and one can shuttle between there and Ukraine as needed, it remains appealing despite the likelihood of a lengthy interrogation and the risk of being turned away. Many natives of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan have therefore taken to travelling back and forth, generally via the Odessa-Batumi ferry.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, migrant from Ingushetia, Odessa, September 2016; migrant from Dagestan (and former fighter in Syria), Tbilisi, January 2017.Hide Footnote In some cases, they meet up with Russia-based family while in Ukraine.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from Dagestan (and former fighter in Syria), Tbilisi, January 2017.Hide Footnote

Meanwhile, Tbilisi has also tried to fine-tune its response to its own Muslim citizens, among whom feelings of disenfranchisement and discrimination linger.[fn]Goguadze and Kapanadze; “Islam in Georgia: Policy and Integration”, op. cit.; Shota Kincha, “Muslims attacked over new prayer space in western Georgia”, OC Media, 14 January 2021.Hide Footnote The increased surveillance that began two decades ago continues, and the communities remain poor as before. As noted above, Muslim Georgian citizens have reportedly been caught up in counter-terror raids, and some killed, even as communities and families insist that they are innocent of any crime.[fn]See footnote 37.Hide Footnote That said, authorities have also supported projects to improve lives and livelihoods, and, in their words, prevent radicalisation of the local Muslim population in Pankisi.[fn]For more details, see the annual reports by the Office of the State Minister for Reconciliation and Civic Equality, which is responsible for coordination of government efforts and communication with donors on projects relating to minorities living in Georgia, eg, “Report on the Implementation of 2018 Action Plan of the State Strategy for Civic Equality and Integration”, Office of the State Minister of Georgia for Reconciliation and Civic Equality, 2019; and “Report on the Implementation of 2019 Action Plan of the State Strategy for Civic Equality and Integration”, Office of the State Minister of Georgia for Reconciliation and Civic Equality, 2020.Hide Footnote These donor-funded efforts include language courses, small business grants and other support, youth camps, and the like. The Georgian government also developed its own education and employment programs to the same ends but shifts in senior personnel in Tbilisi precluded implementation.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former senior Georgian official, Tbilisi, March 2019.Hide Footnote

IV. Conclusions, Implications and Recommendations

Georgian authorities say their policies are guided by international law and formulated in response to Western partners’ concerns about transit of violent criminals and terrorists. But the tight border policy appears to have gone quite far, and the broad powers granted to Georgia’s security service in its anti-terror fight is cause for concern, as is the agency’s secrecy. The security service’s counter-terrorism mandate encompasses not only the entry and exit of people of North Caucasian (and presumably other) origin but also policies that affect the lives of Georgia’s indigenous Muslims. It includes powers of arrest, detention and denial of entry, among other things, but is not subject to any real oversight, whether from parliamentary bodies or civil society.[fn]For a critical overview of Georgian policies, see Barkaia and Janelidze, “Under the Security Gaze”, op. cit., pp. 78-83, 86. For insights into international practices, see “Report on the Democratic Oversight of the Security Services”, European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission), CDL-AD(2007)016, 1–2 June 2007; and “Update of the 2007 Report on the Democratic Oversight of the Security Services and Report on the Democratic Oversight of Signals Intelligence Agencies”, European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission), CDL-AD(2015)006, 20–21 March 2015.Hide Footnote

Tbilisi should change its approach. It can start by imposing clear oversight, transparency and accountability measures to ensure that Georgian citizens and lawmakers know what the security services are doing, with very limited restrictions based on classification, which should also be subject to review. While security sector oversight remains a challenge for many countries, a variety of Western states have adopted practices and created institutions that could be valuable models for Georgia. These include parliamentary and judicial oversight, separate oversight agencies, such as the U.S. Government Accountability Office, special task forces, like Canada’s National Security Transparency Advisory Group, and non-governmental watchdogs, usually working in combination.

Just as it has worked with Western partners to develop and share lists of global travellers of concern, Georgia can also work with them to develop approaches to shine light on the operations of its security services and ensure that its travel bans and restrictions do not overreach and risk undermining other goals. It can also consider making regular classified and unclassified reports to parliament, engaging with civil society advisory groups (which should include Muslim representatives, among others), and adopting judicial oversight and review of its arrest and detention practices.

Georgia should move forward on largely dormant plans to better address the concerns of its Muslim citizens

In addition, Georgia should move forward on largely dormant plans to better address the concerns of its Muslim citizens, to help ensure that they are fully enfranchised, that children have adequate access to educational opportunities, and that impoverished Muslims receive the development support that they need. This approach will provide visibility into these communities in a more sustainable way than informant networks can offer. Whether or not economic development and stability can render Georgian Muslims less vulnerable to exploitation by foreign fighters and recruiters in future conflicts remains a topic of debate among policymakers.[fn]Christoph Zürcher, “What Do We (Not) Know about Development Aid and Violence? A Systematic Review”, World Development, vol. 98 (October 2017), pp. 506–22.Hide Footnote But whatever their other effects, they are also goods in their own right and an area where Tbilisi can effectively cooperate with foreign partners.

The goal of these policy recommendations is not to increase the number of migrants who come to Georgia. Migration may or may not rise in the future, depending on a wide range of unpredictable factors. Rather, Georgia should do what it can to ensure that the same dynamics that have made it seem an unwelcoming place for such migrants do not, over time, undermine its capacity to create the free, open and tolerant society it has been working to build for the last 30 years.

Tbilisi/Brussels, 30 July 2021