The present-day inhabitants of the Pankisi Gorge faced some major social and political problems following the Russo-Chechen wars. In December 1994, when war broke out between Chechen resistance fighters and the Russian-supported central government in Chechnya, Pankisi witnessed an influx of refugees from Chechnya. Among them were many families of the Pankisi Kists, who after the disintegration of the Soviet Union left for Chechnya. The tide of refugees picked up considerably after the collapse of the 1995 Russian-Chechen cease-fire agreement and the new round of violence that broke out in late 1999. Between September and December 1999, refugees began pouring into Chechnya’s southern highland areas from northern parts of the republic.
Social, Political & Religious Concerns
In the valley local Kists ended up sheltering some 85 percent of the refugees. The inflow of refugees in 1999 and 2000 aggravated an already difficult economic and social environment in the Pankisi region. Crime worsened: drug trafficking, arms smuggling and kidnappings became commonplace. At the same time, the missionary activities of Wahhabi radical Islamists with traditional ties to the official state religion of Saudi Arabia increased significantly. By late 1999, Georgia’s central government, which also suffered from a reputation for corruption, had effectively lost control of the region.
The events of September 11, 2001 brought about a radical change of course for Georgia. As political tensions in the region rose, the Georgian government declared Pankisi closed to journalists. Meanwhile, relations between the Kists and ethnic Georgians and Ossets in neighbouring villages were worsening, to the point where ethnic Georgians began organizing protests. A so-called people’s army of armed groups of ethnic Georgian villagers began to block access to the Gorge.
The Pankisi Gorge became the focus of international attention in 2002 when the U.S. government asserted that Islamic radicals fleeing Afghanistan were moving into the region. To help Georgian authorities re-establish control of the region, the U.S. government announced that it would send some 100-150 Special Forces advisors to Georgia to train the country’s counterinsurgency troops.
Exodus of Other Ethnic Groups
The crisis of criminality which emerged in Pankisi in the late 1990s and early 2000s made Ossets, Georgians and Kists feel unsafe. In the early 2000s, there were several clashes between rival criminal groups, who tend to be organized ethnically. Consequently, the Georgian population of remote villages in the Gorge started moving to the other parts of the Akhmeta district. The Pshavs left the village of Zemo Khalatsani and sold their houses to Kists. The Kists are now the only inhabitants of villages on the left bank of the Alazani River and a majority on the right bank.
Nazy's Guest House
Republic of Georgia