There are more similarities than differences between Pankisi and the rest of Georgia.

Bradley Jardine, Neil Hauer Jun 19, 2018

“They say we are all terrorists,” says Fatima, a guesthouse owner near Georgia’s border with Chechnya. “We are just ordinary people. Ordinary people with a proud culture and history.”

Fatima is not her real name: she requested anonymity after a pattern of what she calls “disappointing coverage” by journalists.

This is the Pankisi Gorge, home of the Kists, a minority group closely related to Chechens. The region has become notorious in recent years, with media coverage almost uniformly depicting it as a hotbed of Islamist radicalism. One American analyst went as far as to dub Pankisi the “Harvard of terrorist upbringing.”

The region's Muslim character is unmistakable. There is a prominent new mosque on the main street of Duisi, Pankisi’s largest village. Women wear headscarves and young men have pronounced beards and long bangs, as is fashionable among Chechen men these days.

But there are more similarities than differences between Pankisi and the rest of Georgia. Local cuisine is replete with Georgian classics, albeit with occasional twists: for example, Kists make the legendary Georgian khinkali dumplings with a filling of nettles instead of the standard meat mixture. Villagers sew handicrafts and clothing popular throughout the country, including the iconic Kakhetian felt caps.

In the early 2000s, the region became a base for Chechen separatists in their war with Russia, resulting in tense relations between Moscow and Tbilisi. More recently, at least 50 Pankisi natives have traveled to Syria to fight alongside ISIS, including Tarkhan Batirashvili, better known as Umar al-Shishani, the group’s so-called “minister of war.”

But locals insist that violence and radicalism are atypical and an increasing number of them, including Fatima, are leading the charge to change perceptions through one of their culture’s most sacred values: hospitality.

Fatima is the proprietor of Pankisi’s first real guesthouse, which she opened in 2013 after she had grown increasingly frustrated by the way her homeland was being portrayed.

“The government is unwilling to help us, so I decided to do something myself,” she says.

Pankisi is rarely advertised as a tourist destination, Fatima says. Local tourist companies and authorities often discourage people from visiting. “Please be careful,” is the response one often hears from Georgians when announcing travel plans to the area.

The region is also noticeably missing from popular travel guides, such as Lonely Planet. Fatima notes happily, though, that the region has appeared in the Bradt travel guide to Georgia since 2015 after she met with the author.

Despite the lack of publicity, more than 10 guesthouses are now running in the gorge, and the operators opened a new tourism development association in March. On a recent visit to the region, Eurasianet encountered American, Japanese and even Malaysian tourists out enjoying Pankisi's stunning views.

“At first we only got a handful of journalists coming through to stay with us, but now we are getting hundreds of tourists interested in nature walks and extreme sports,” Fatima says.

But tourism continues to face an uphill struggle as the perception persists that Pankisi is a hotbed of terrorism. “Most journalists know what they want to write before they even come here,” Fatima says. “They never consider the ways in which their words might hurt us.”

Sulkhan Bordzikashvili, a Tbilisi-based journalist and activist who is a Pankisi native, agrees. “Unfortunately, most of the time the gorge is only mentioned in connection with terrorism.”

Negative stereotypes again came to the fore in December 2017, following a widely criticized counter-terrorism operation by Georgia’s security services that led to the death of teenager Temirlan Machalikashvili.

In the immediate aftermath of the fatal operation, Fatima's guesthouse issued an email to journalists who were contacting her for accommodation: “This is not a good time to visit,” it said. “The media and state have caused significant damage to the reputation of the Kist people through sensationalist reporting. Moreover, they have nearly destroyed the infant tourism scene, which a few people have worked so hard to develop.”

But Bordzikashvili remains optimistic. “It will be difficult to change [these stereotypes], but I think it is possible” he says.

One way to do this would be to increase awareness of Pankisi's religious tolerance and healthy interactions with its neighbors. While there are no Christian residents left in the central village of Jokolo, its 19th-century St. George's Church is maintained by a local Kist family. They do not use the building themselves, but keep it in good repair and unlock it for visiting Georgians wishing to pray inside.

The region also has Islamic traditions that it can show off to tourists, such as the Marshua Kavkaz (“Peace to the Caucasus”) vocal ensemble. The all-female group has performed throughout Georgia and internationally, and every Friday they conduct the sacred Sufi zikr chant at Duisi's old mosque.

Meanwhile, locals are proud of the levels of human development their small region has achieved. “The children here have some of the highest test scores in all of Georgia,” Fatima says with evident pride.

Much of this can be attributed to the Roddy Scott Foundation, a British NGO that provides English classes for children. Fatima has recruited guides for tours of Pankisi from among these students, who themselves recognize how important the Foundation has been.

“They are the whole reason we speak good English,” a 16-year-old guide tells us as we stroll through Duisi.

It is telling, however, that most of these successes have been achieved without the involvement of the Georgian government. The only real signs of Tbilisi’s influence are the police station at the entrance to the gorge and dozens of large pipes along the Alazani River, part of a controversial dam project in the region.

Opposition to the dam has been near-universal in Pankisi, with several rallies already held against it.

“Although the absolute majority of the population opposes the dam, the process of building it is still ongoing,” says Bordzikashvili. “Moreover, representatives of various government institutions and private companies are trying to silence citizens who openly protest its construction.”

Fatima fears the project will be yet another state-driven blow to local tourism.

“We are against the construction of the dam because it will impact the quality of our water, the environment, tourism,” she says.

The gorge’s residents have steadfastly maintained their valley and their customs for nearly two centuries. Their language attests to this, with the local dialect containing words no longer commonly used in standard Chechen. But as Pankisi opens to the world, Kist culture is facing new challenges.

“Do you like Snoop Dogg?” the young guide asks excitedly. “He is so good, but his lyrics are ‘smoke weed every day.’”

“Don’t your parents get angry?” his friend interjects.

“They don’t speak any English,” he laughs.

Bradley Jardine is a freelance journalist who covers the Caucasus. Neil Hauer is an independent security analyst focused on Syria, Russia, and the Caucasus.

Bradley Jardine is a freelance journalist who covers the Caucasus.

Neil Hauer is a Tbilisi-based writer.

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NATO Summit Declaration, Prague, 21 November 2002

We remain committed to the CFE Treaty and reaffirm our attachment to the early entry into force of the Adapted Treaty. The CFE regime provides a fundamental contribution to a more secure and integrated Europe. We welcome the approach of those non-CFE countries, which have stated their intention to request accession to the Adapted CFE Treaty upon its entry into force. Their accession would provide an important additional contribution to European stability and security. We welcome the significant results of Russia’s effort to reduce forces in the Treaty’s Article V area to agreed levels. We urge swift fulfilment of the outstanding Istanbul commitments on Georgia and Moldova, which will create the conditions for Allies and other States Parties to move forward on ratification of the Adapted CFE Treaty.


full text:

Prague Summit Declaration

Issued by the Heads of State and Government
participating in the meeting
of the North Atlantic Council in Prague
on 21 November 2002

    We, the Heads of State and Government of the member countries of the North Atlantic Alliance, met today to enlarge our Alliance and further strengthen NATO to meet the grave new threats and profound security challenges of the 21st century. Bound by our common vision embodied in the Washington Treaty, we commit ourselves to transforming NATO with new members, new capabilities and new relationships with our partners. We are steadfast in our commitment to the transatlantic link; to NATO’s fundamental security tasks including collective defence; to our shared democratic values; and to the United Nations Charter.

    Today, we have decided to invite Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia to begin accession talks to join our Alliance. We congratulate them on this historic occasion, which so fittingly takes place in Prague. The accession of these new members will strengthen security for all in the Euro-Atlantic area, and help achieve our common goal of a Europe whole and free, united in peace and by common values. NATO’s door will remain open to European democracies willing and able to assume the responsibilities and obligations of membership, in accordance with Article 10 of the Washington Treaty.

    Recalling the tragic events of 11 September 2001 and our subsequent decision to invoke Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, we have approved a comprehensive package of measures, based on NATO’s Strategic Concept, to strengthen our ability to meet the challenges to the security of our forces, populations and territory, from wherever they may come. Today's decisions will provide for balanced and effective capabilities within the Alliance so that NATO can better carry out the full range of its missions and respond collectively to those challenges, including the threat posed by terrorism and by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery.

    We underscore that our efforts to transform and adapt NATO should not be perceived as a threat by any country or organisation, but rather as a demonstration of our determination to protect our populations, territory and forces from any armed attack, including terrorist attack, directed from abroad. We are determined to deter, disrupt, defend and protect against any attacks on us, in accordance with the Washington Treaty and the Charter of the United Nations. In order to carry out the full range of its missions, NATO must be able to field forces that can move quickly to wherever they are needed, upon decision by the North Atlantic Council, to sustain operations over distance and time, including in an environment where they might be faced with nuclear, biological and chemical threats, and to achieve their objectives. Effective military forces, an essential part of our overall political strategy, are vital to safeguard the freedom and security of our populations and to contribute to peace and security in the Euro-Atlantic region. We have therefore decided to:
        Create a NATO Response Force (NRF) consisting of a technologically advanced, flexible, deployable, interoperable and sustainable force including land, sea, and air elements ready to move quickly to wherever needed, as decided by the Council. The NRF will also be a catalyst for focusing and promoting improvements in the Alliance’s military capabilities. We gave directions for the development of a comprehensive concept for such a force, which will have its initial operational capability as soon as possible, but not later than October 2004 and its full operational capability not later than October 2006, and for a report to Defence Ministers in Spring 2003. The NRF and the related work of the EU Headline Goal should be mutually reinforcing while respecting the autonomy of both organisations.

        Streamline NATO’s military command arrangements. We have approved the Defence Ministers’ report providing the outline of a leaner, more efficient, effective and deployable command structure, with a view to meeting the operational requirements for the full range of Alliance missions. It is based on the agreed Minimum Military Requirements document for the Alliance’s command arrangements. The structure will enhance the transatlantic link, result in a significant reduction in headquarters and Combined Air Operations Centres, and promote the transformation of our military capabilities. There will be two strategic commands, one operational, and one functional. The strategic command for Operations, headquartered in Europe (Belgium), will be supported by two Joint Force Commands able to generate a land-based Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) headquarters and a robust but more limited standing joint headquarters from which a sea-based CJTF headquarters capability can be drawn. There will also be land, sea and air components. The strategic command for Transformation, headquartered in the United States, and with a presence in Europe, will be responsible for the continuing transformation of military capabilities and for the promotion of interoperability of Alliance forces, in cooperation with the Allied Command Operations as appropriate. We have instructed the Council and Defence Planning Committee, taking into account the work of the NATO Military Authorities and objective military criteria, to finalise the details of the structure, including geographic locations of command structure headquarters and other elements, so that final decisions are taken by Defence Ministers in June 2003.

        Approve the Prague Capabilities Commitment (PCC) as part of the continuing Alliance effort to improve and develop new military capabilities for modern warfare in a high threat environment. Individual Allies have made firm and specific political commitments to improve their capabilities in the areas of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear defence; intelligence, surveillance, and target acquisition; air-to-ground surveillance; command, control and communications; combat effectiveness, including precision guided munitions and suppression of enemy air defences; strategic air and sea lift; air-to-air refuelling; and deployable combat support and combat service support units. Our efforts to improve capabilities through the PCC and those of the European Union to enhance European capabilities through the European Capabilities Action Plan should be mutually reinforcing, while respecting the autonomy of both organisations, and in a spirit of openness.

        We will implement all aspects of our Prague Capabilities Commitment as quickly as possible. We will take the necessary steps to improve capabilities in the identified areas of continuing capability shortfalls. Such steps could include multinational efforts, role specialisation and reprioritisation, noting that in many cases additional financial resources will be required, subject as appropriate to parliamentary approval. We are committed to pursuing vigorously capability improvements. We have directed the Council in Permanent Session to report on implementation to Defence Ministers.
        Endorse the agreed military concept for defence against terrorism. The concept is part of a package of measures to strengthen NATO’s capabilities in this area, which also includes improved intelligence sharing and crisis response arrangements.

        Terrorism, which we categorically reject and condemn in all its forms and manifestations, poses a grave and growing threat to Alliance populations, forces and territory, as well as to international security. We are determined to combat this scourge for as long as necessary. To combat terrorism effectively, our response must be multi-faceted and comprehensive.

        We are committed, in cooperation with our partners, to fully implement the Civil Emergency Planning (CEP) Action Plan for the improvement of civil preparedness against possible attacks against the civilian population with chemical, biological or radiological (CBR) agents. We will enhance our ability to provide support, when requested, to help national authorities to deal with the consequences of terrorist attacks, including attacks with CBRN against critical infrastructure, as foreseen in the CEP Action Plan.
        Endorse the implementation of five nuclear, biological and chemical weapons defence initiatives, which will enhance the Alliance's defence capabilities against weapons of mass destruction: a Prototype Deployable NBC Analytical Laboratory; a Prototype NBC Event Response team; a virtual Centre of Excellence for NBC Weapons Defence; a NATO Biological and Chemical Defence Stockpile; and a Disease Surveillance system. We reaffirm our commitment to augment and improve expeditiously our NBC defence capabilities.

        Strengthen our capabilities to defend against cyber attacks.

        Examine options for addressing the increasing missile threat to Alliance territory, forces and population centres in an effective and efficient way through an appropriate mix of political and defence efforts, along with deterrence. Today we initiated a new NATO Missile Defence feasibility study to examine options for protecting Alliance territory, forces and population centres against the full range of missile threats, which we will continue to assess. Our efforts in this regard will be consistent with the indivisibility of Allied security. We support the enhancement of the role of the WMD Centre within the International Staff to assist the work of the Alliance in tackling this threat.

    We reaffirm that disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation make an essential contribution to preventing the spread and use of WMD and their means of delivery. We stress the importance of abiding by and strengthening existing multilateral non-proliferation and export control regimes and international arms control and disarmament accords.
    Admitting Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia as new members will enhance NATO’s ability to face the challenges of today and tomorrow. They have demonstrated their commitment to the basic principles and values set out in the Washington Treaty, the ability to contribute to the Alliance’s full range of missions including collective defence, and a firm commitment to contribute to stability and security, especially in regions of crisis and conflict. We will begin accession talks immediately with the aim of signing Accession Protocols by the end of March 2003 and completing the ratification process in time for these countries to join the Alliance at the latest at our Summit in May 2004. During the period leading up to accession, the Alliance will involve the invited countries in Alliance activities to the greatest extent possible. We pledge our continued support and assistance, including through the Membership Action Plan (MAP). We look forward to receiving the invitees’ timetables for reforms, upon which further progress will be expected before and after accession in order to enhance their contribution to the Alliance.

    We commend Albania for its significant reform progress, its constructive role in promoting regional stability, and strong support for the Alliance. We commend the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia 1 for the significant progress it has achieved in its reform process and for its strong support for Alliance operations, as well as for the important steps it has made in overcoming its internal challenges and advancing democracy, stability and ethnic reconciliation. We will continue to help both countries, including through the MAP, to achieve stability, security and prosperity, so that they can meet the obligations of membership. In this context, we have also agreed to improve our capacity to contribute to Albania’s continued reform, and to further assist defence and security sector reform in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia through the NATO presence. We encourage both countries to redouble their reform efforts. They remain under consideration for future membership.

    Croatia, which has made encouraging progress on reform, will also be under consideration for future membership. Progress in this regard will depend upon Croatia’s further reform efforts and compliance with all of its international obligations, including to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

    The Membership Action Plan will remain the vehicle to keep aspirants’ progress under review. Today’s invitees will not be the last.
    The Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) and the Partnership for Peace (PfP) have greatly enhanced security and stability throughout the Euro-Atlantic area. We have today decided to upgrade our cooperation with the EAPC/PfP countries. Our political dialogue will be strengthened, and Allies, in consultation with Partners, will, to the maximum extent possible, increase involvement of Partners, as appropriate, in the planning, conduct, and oversight of those activities and projects in which they participate and to which they contribute. We have introduced new practical mechanisms, such as Individual Partnership Action Plans, which will ensure a comprehensive, tailored and differentiated approach to the Partnership, and which allow for support to the reform efforts of Partners. We encourage Partners, including the countries of the strategically important regions of the Caucasus and Central Asia, to take advantage of these mechanisms. We welcome the resolve of Partners to undertake all efforts to combat terrorism, including through the Partnership Action Plan against Terrorism. We will also continue to further enhance interoperability and defence-related activities, which constitute the core of our partnership. Participation in the PfP and the EAPC could be broadened in the future to include the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Bosnia and Herzegovina once necessary progress is achieved, including full cooperation with the ICTY.

    We welcome the significant achievements of the NATO-Russia Council since the historic NATO-Russia Summit meeting in Rome. We have deepened our relationship to the benefit of all the peoples in the Euro-Atlantic area. NATO member states and Russia are working together in the NATO-Russia Council as equal partners, making progress in areas such as peacekeeping, defence reform, WMD proliferation, search and rescue, civil emergency planning, theatre missile defence and the struggle against terrorism, towards our shared goal of a stable, peaceful and undivided Europe. In accordance with the Founding Act and the Rome Declaration, we are determined to intensify and broaden our cooperation with Russia.

    We remain committed to strong NATO-Ukraine relations under the Charter on a Distinctive Partnership. We note Ukraine’s determination to pursue full Euro-Atlantic integration, and encourage Ukraine to implement all the reforms necessary, including as regards enforcement of export controls, to achieve this objective. The new Action Plan that we are adopting with Ukraine is an important step forward; it identifies political, economic, military and other reform areas where Ukraine is committed to make further progress and where NATO will continue to assist. Continued progress in deepening and enhancing our relationship requires an unequivocal Ukrainian commitment to the values of the Euro-Atlantic community.

    We reaffirm that security in Europe is closely linked to security and stability in the Mediterranean. We therefore decide to upgrade substantially the political and practical dimensions of our Mediterranean Dialogue as an integral part of the Alliance’s cooperative approach to security. In this respect, we encourage intensified practical cooperation and effective interaction on security matters of common concern, including terrorism-related issues, as appropriate, where NATO can provide added value. We reiterate that the Mediterranean Dialogue and other international efforts, including the EU Barcelona process, are complementary and mutually reinforcing.

    NATO and the European Union share common strategic interests. We remain strongly committed to the decisions made at the Washington Summit and subsequent Ministerial meetings, in order to enhance NATO-EU cooperation. The success of our cooperation has been evident in our concerted efforts in the Balkans to restore peace and create the conditions for prosperous and democratic societies. Events on and since 11 September 2001 have underlined further the importance of greater transparency and cooperation between our two organisations on questions of common interest relating to security, defence, and crisis management, so that crises can be met with the most appropriate military response and effective crisis management ensured. We remain committed to making the progress needed on all the various aspects of our relationship, noting the need to find solutions satisfactory to all Allies on the issue of participation by non-EU European Allies, in order to achieve a genuine strategic partnership.

    To further promote peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic Area, NATO will continue to develop its fruitful and close cooperation with the OSCE, namely in the complementary areas of conflict prevention, crisis management and post-conflict rehabilitation.

    The Alliance has played a vital role in restoring a secure environment in South-East Europe. We reaffirm our support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all the countries in this strategically important region. We will continue to work with our partners in SFOR and KFOR, the United Nations, the European Union, the OSCE and other international organisations, to help build a peaceful, stable and democratic South-East Europe, where all countries assume ownership of the process of reform, and are integrated in Euro-Atlantic structures. We remain determined to see that goal become reality. We expect the countries of the region: to continue to build enduring multi-ethnic democracies, root out organised crime and corruption and firmly establish the rule of law; to cooperate regionally; and to comply fully with international obligations, including by bringing to justice in The Hague all ICTY indictees. The reform progress that these countries make will determine the pace of their integration into Euro-Atlantic structures. We confirm our continued presence in the region and we stand ready to assist these countries in the region, through individual programmes of assistance, to continue their progress. In the light of continuing progress and analysis of the prevailing security and political environment, we will explore options for a further rationalisation and force restructuring, taking into account a regional approach. We welcome the successful conclusion of Operation Amber Fox in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. We have agreed to maintain a NATO presence from 15 December for a limited period to contribute to continuing stability, which we will review in the light of the evolving situation. We note the EU’s expressed readiness to take over the military operation in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia under appropriate conditions.

    NATO member countries have responded to the call of the UN Security Council to assist the Afghan government in restoring security in Kabul and its surroundings. Their forces constitute the backbone of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. We commend the United Kingdom and Turkey for their successive contributions as ISAF lead nations, and welcome the willingness of Germany and the Netherlands jointly to succeed them. NATO has agreed to provide support in selected areas for the next ISAF lead nations, showing our continued commitment. However, the responsibility for providing security and law and order throughout Afghanistan resides with the Afghans themselves.

    We remain committed to the CFE Treaty and reaffirm our attachment to the early entry into force of the Adapted Treaty. The CFE regime provides a fundamental contribution to a more secure and integrated Europe. We welcome the approach of those non-CFE countries, which have stated their intention to request accession to the Adapted CFE Treaty upon its entry into force. Their accession would provide an important additional contribution to European stability and security. We welcome the significant results of Russia’s effort to reduce forces in the Treaty’s Article V area to agreed levels. We urge swift fulfilment of the outstanding Istanbul commitments on Georgia and Moldova, which will create the conditions for Allies and other States Parties to move forward on ratification of the Adapted CFE Treaty.

    As NATO transforms, we have endorsed a package of measures to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the headquarters organisation. The NATO+ Initiative on human resources issues complements this effort. We are committed to continuing to provide, individually and collectively, the resources that are necessary to allow our Alliance to perform the tasks that we demand of it.

    We welcome the role of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in complementing NATO's efforts to project stability throughout Europe. We also appreciate the contribution made by the Atlantic Treaty Association in promoting better understanding of the Alliance and its objectives among our publics.

    We express our deep appreciation for the gracious hospitality extended to us by the Government of the Czech Republic.

    Our Summit demonstrates that European and North American Allies, already united by history and common values, will remain a community determined and able to defend our territory, populations and forces against all threats and challenges. For over fifty years, NATO has defended peace, democracy and security in the Euro-Atlantic area. The commitments we have undertaken here in Prague will ensure that the Alliance continues to play that vital role into the future.

    Turkey recognises the Republic of Macedonia with its constitutional name.

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