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Way down in Pankisi

Georgia’s Pankisi Valley has gained a reputation for violent extremism in recent years. But the international community’s attention isn’t just unwanted, it’s harmful. Русский

Duisi, Georgia: local residents hold horse racing (doghi) competitions at the celebration of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan. (c) Dominik K. Cagara. All rights reserved.“Why don’t you come and do something useful?” an old acquaintance told me, his scorn undisguised, as I walked through Duisi, the largest village in Georgia’s Pankisi Valley. 

I’ve been coming to Pankisi for over five years, but this is the first time I decided to connect with the local community as a journalist. Not everyone I shared the news with reacted enthusiastically — here in Pankisi, there’s widespread negative sentiment towards foreign journalists. 

Advance knowledge

“Every journalist who’s worked here has come with a pre-written scenario,” Musa Pankiski, an active member of the valley’s Salafi Muslim community, tells me on my friend’s porch after iftar, the evening meal that marks the break of fast during Ramadan. He refused to reveal his real surname. 

“Journalists know in advance what they want to find in the valley,” Musa argues. “They don’t come in order to find the truth, which is somewhere in the middle; they come to find a scandal. This is one of the reasons behind people’s distrust of journalists. Journalists come, record their footage, later edit it, take things out of the context, and present it as a report. That’s why people’s trust has been affected.” 

This attitude goes back 15 years, when Pankisi came to home a large number of refugees from neighbouring Chechnya — and the reputation of posing a security threat. Indeed, locals blame foreign media for marking the community out as “terrorist” — a label they’ve had to live with ever since. 

The valley’s residents have a certain allure for both Russian and western media

These attitudes have gained strength recently, after it became known that up to several dozen Kists, a Chechen-speaking ethnic group, have left the valley in order to fight alongside Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Members of the community tell me the way foreign media covers issues related to violent religious extremism has reduced their trust in journalists to zero. Moreover, unbalanced, ad hoc reporting on the valley has affected grassroots initiatives aimed at engaging the community in a way that would allow them to articulate their problems in their own voice.

The unreciprocated love story between the media industry and Pankisi, which is far from the only region of the Caucasus or wider Europe where departures to the Middle East have been reported, is connected to the wider media industry. The valley’s residents have a certain allure for both Russian and western media, as this group has found themselves at a narrative intersection between Russia, the Middle East and the west, informed by the common trope of an untamable Chechen warrior who is both a likable insurgent against Russia and a dauntless Islamic militant. 

With its recent departures for Syria and Iraq, Georgia's Pankisi Valley has captured the international community's imagination. You can find out more about life in Pankisi at Pankisi Times.This unique position, fuelled by both Russian and western orientalism towards Chechens, has led to a disproportionate amount of reporting commissioned on Pankisi, while other Muslim communities in the Caucasus, such as the ones in Kakheti, Adjara, Guria, Kvemo Kartli or Azerbaijan, are almost entirely left out.

This reporting reinforces, rather than challenges, existing political attitudes held by the Georgian and international public, and legitimises policies undertaken by Georgia’s elites.

White noise

Negative attitudes towards journalists and their work have affected the ability of Pankisi’s local community Radio WAY, whose name translates to “We” in Chechen, to recruit journalists. It has been difficult for the station to conduct reporting due to a mixture of suspicion and mistrust towards journalists and a cultural restraint against speaking out about the small community’s issues in public.

“It is very difficult for local reporters to work here,” Gela Mtivlishvili, editor-in-chief of Radio WAY and the Information Centre of Kakheti, admits. “Working as a reporter is acceptable only for the scarcest exceptions from among the local youth. Since we’re trying to build a community radio, its content needs to be created by staff recruited from among members of the local community. We are putting an extremely hard effort into trying to engage with the local population.”

The unreciprocated love story between the media industry and Pankisi is connected to the wider media industry

The tragedy of Pankisi’s entanglement with the global media industry is that general disappointment with journalism translates into people’s reluctance to engage in a grassroots media project, which is meant to empower them and publicly voice their interests, instead of exploiting their experiences for profit.

Duisi, Georgia: Gela Mtivlishvili trains a journalist at Radio WAY, which means "We" in Chechen. (c) Dominik K. Cagara. All rights reserved.Shorena Khangoshvili, a local English teacher and journalist at Radio WAY, says that, despite these difficulties, there have been positive trends in community engagement once people in Pankisi started to realise that the radio station is a way for the community to assert itself.

“It’s been difficult to conduct vox pops, to ask about even the most trivial issues, Shorena tells me. “For instance: ‘Will you vote in the upcoming elections?’ These interview attempts can be met with very negative reactions. Still, I think that the radio has managed to do its job. […] The role of the radio is not only to report about issues, but also to stand up for people’s interests, which eventually encouraged them to enter into communication. They have started to become more or less used to the fact that they can voice their opinions publicly, which they weren’t comfortable with before.” 

International outlets systematically ignore the social and economic issues which the people of Pankisi overwhelmingly consider their greatest shared tragedy

In this sense, Pankisi has attracted a large number of foreign media outlets which feed on and exploit one small aspect of the community’s shared experience — the presence of violent extremism widely embodied by Umar Shishani, the Pankisi-born fighter in the ranks of the Islamic State — for ratings which translate into profit, in case of western media, or into advancing political agenda, in case of Russian outlets. In doing so, these international outlets systematically ignore the social and economic issues which the people of Pankisi overwhelmingly consider their greatest shared tragedy. 

Despite being reluctant to do so, some members of the community continue to give interviews for fear of being portrayed as “radical” and uncooperative, as if they have something to hide. As Radio WAY shows, the media industry has the capacity to impede organic grassroots activities aimed at empowering communities to find their own solutions to their problems.

Reporting oriented at violent extremism attracts a lot of attention from international donors, who have begun to fund an array of activities in the area. The response to these activities, such as meetings with Islamic scholars, driving lessons or computer and internet literacy courses have been met with an overwhelmingly positive response. More development-oriented projects, such as developing ecotourism or creating workplaces (for instance, a recent initiative to set up a community sewing workshop), weren’t financially sustainable enough to succeed. 

Rural divide

These projects are, however, only a drop in the ocean, and are lost amidst the absence of a comprehensive development policy for rural areas from the Georgian state.

For instance, without being able to apply your skills in meaningful employment, the skills development projects, although noble and justifiable, lose a lot of their importance. Setting up a community sewing workshop is honourable, but futile when Georgia’s subsequent liberal governments seek to attract foreign direct investment instead of increasing their efforts to support local industry.

The presence of international NGOs in Pankisi and their projects should serve as a guidepost for the Georgian authorities. NGO activities do not absolve the authorities from stepping up and taking responsibility for the enduring lack of progressive change in the valley — or any other rural region in Georgia.

The Georgian state, as the legitimate provider of security, should radically rethink its priorities by readjusting its development policies.Locals say that the valley has been depopulating due to economically motivated migration to Russia and the west. While the 2002 Georgian national census recorded 7,100 Kists living in Georgia, the 2014 census recorded only 5,700 — a decline of 20%. Unemployment rates are soaring and there is a general feeling of despair, especially among the younger generation, who see few opportunities for self-realisation in Pankisi or elsewhere in Georgia. Shorena, the teacher who works at Radio WAY, points out that the problem needs to be considered on a national scale.

“Unemployment is an issue everywhere in Georgia, including here. Pankisi is not special in this respect,” Shorena says. “It’s obvious that there is a high rate of youth migration. Despite the fact that different projects are being done here, they still prefer to leave to find their own ways of self-realisation. In a way, Pankisi is a blind alley. It is just a couple of villages and it doesn’t matter how good education you receive, there is no way you can develop here.”

NGO activities do not absolve the authorities from stepping up and taking responsibility for the enduring lack of progressive change here

Since the 2002 census, Georgia has lost 15% of its population to outmigration. The only region of Georgia that has grown in the last 12 years is Tbilisi, which can be attributed to a pattern of migration to the capital in order to find employment. It shows that uncontrolled urbanisation, lack of a comprehensive development plan for rural areas, excessive focus on foreign direct investment with virtually no investment on behalf of the state, have all contributed to a spectacular failure to create employment opportunities in Georgia’s rural regions.

The resulting monopolisation of social aid in the hands of local Salafi activists, with the support of foreign charity funds, drives Kists further away from the state and Georgian societal structures, contributing to their isolation. While virtually all Kists speak fluent Georgian and can be considered well integrated into Georgian society, the difficulty in finding work, in addition to the disadvantage of coming from a rural region, can be connected to widespread anti-Islamic sentiments in Georgia. 

The local environment is such that Georgian citizens and residents of Pankisi in particular are forced to leave Georgia to satisfy their basic needs, such as a varied diet or warm clothing, not to mention self-development and realisation. The Georgian state, as the legitimate provider of security, should radically rethink its priorities by readjusting its development policies. Otherwise, there is a risk that any form of grassroots activism will fail and the community’s problems will continue to be borne in isolation, silently. 

Only policies based on the ideals of social justice will empower local people with dignity so they can engage in activism — whether in journalism, development or preventing violent extremism — and stand up for their own interests.

Why is Georgia's State Agency for Religious Issues accusing NGOs of fostering radicalisation? Find out more about the role for Georgia's civil society in countering extremism here

About the author

Dominik K. Cagara is a journalist, translator and civil society activist who focuses on issues related to peace, security and minorities on both sides of the Caucasus. He is the co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of OC Media. Follow him on Twitter @dkcagara.


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