Civil.ge asked foreign policy and security analysts if the events in Ukraine, as well as instability created by the Islamic State group increase the risks of spillover in the Caucasus and how should Georgia - and the EU - tackle potential risks?
The risks of hard spillovers as a result of events in Ukraine and as part of IS cannot be more different in nature. Still chances of new or more aggressive incursions of Russia in the South Caucasus seem fairly small; and the chances of IS getting a foothold in the South Caucasus are even smaller.
But the Russian North Caucasus of Russia is a different case. Here, instability is on the rise due to tensions between the Russian security sector and the local Chechen leadership, which sports its own armed grouping. The growing dissatisfaction in the North Caucasus, as well potentially weakened grip by the Kremlin over the region add to vulnerabilities for IS recruitment. But while the recruitment for ongoing IS militancy is a severe problem in Muslim areas of the North Caucasus, it seems unlikely that IS could get a direct foothold there. Stronger prevention and coordination among border services is required, just like when addressing the IS recruitment in Western Europe or even Central Asia.
Georgia’s attention should be focused firstly, on further reform and strengthening of its border control capacity, including in cooperation with its neighbours, including Russia. Secondly, within the country, Georgia should focus on social programmes that prevent radicalization, improve education and youth integration in country’s Muslim areas. The EU can probably help in all this by funding relevant projects.
When it comes to Russia’s role in creating instability in the South Caucasus, while Russia has both the military and the economic mechanisms to create instability in all three countries, it is not in its interests to create additional tensions on its borders now.
Kakha Khizanishvili is an independent security analyst, he served as Director of the Intelligence Training Center in 2004-2005 in Georgia and as Director of the Police Academy in 2006-2007
Events in Ukraine have more impact on Georgian economy than its security: Ukraine is a significant trade partner for Georgia and recent events there impacted both imports and exports. There are probably few dozen Georgian fighters on the Ukrainian side (and several even on the pro-Russian side), but it is unlikely their presence in Ukraine will have any direct impact on Georgian security. Most of them have been residing in Ukraine before the hostilities, but even those who traveled from Georgia to participate in the war, have been motivated by “defending Georgian independence by fighting common enemy (Russia)”. It is likely many of them will settle in Ukraine after the war. Those few who will return to Georgia would pose no risk to security of the state or society: they recognize and respect Georgian statehood, are fighting to defend it and their re-entry in the society would be no different from re-entry of veterans of Abkhazia or South Ossetia wars.
The situation with Georgians fighting in Syria is very different and contains much greater risks. Reports regarding the number of Georgian citizens joining Daesh [Arabic acronym for the IS group] vary from 50-200. Majority of them come from Pankisi Gorge (ethnic Chechens), but there are some fighters from Kvemo Kartli (ethnic Azerbaijanis) and Adjara (ethnic Georgians). 2-3 of them have even achieved leadership positions within Daesh and have significant resources under control. What are the risks?
Reputational – Georgia has never been viewed as a country producing religiously driven terrorists. High profiles of Daesh leaders like Omar Shishani are changing this perception.
Geopolitical – for many years Russia has been accusing Georgia of harboring terrorists in Pankisi. High number of Pankisi Kists (Chechens) among Daesh could give Russian assertions credibility even among Georgia’s allies, and may serve as a casus belli for Russian military action.
Becoming potential terrorist target – Georgia, a predominantly Christian country, has allied itself with NATO and specifically the U.S. Georgia has been a willing participant in NATO deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. Still because of its small size and relative insignificance, it has never been targeted by any anti-western terrorist groups. With Georgians entering the Daesh ranks, this could also change.
Dealing with returnees – this is where the greatest risks lay. These Georgian citizens chose to become part of the organization which does not recognize state boundaries, glorifies “martyrdom” and uses brutal execution of civilians as public relations tool. What should Georgia do with those Daesh fighters who survive combat and, in few months or even years later are trying to return home? This is a very important question because a) of all the risks listed, this is probably the only one which Georgia can actually do something about; b) the decisions made in this regard will have long-term consequences. For example one can consider the right to withdraw their Georgian passports or refuse return, as well as making participation in prisoner executions and other war crimes on the foreign soil explicitly punishable by the Georgian criminal code.