“In Georgia, the threat is external, not internal” - The Pankisi Conundrum
26 November, 2015
“In Georgia, the threat is external, not internal” - The Pankisi Conundrum
As many an expert and opinion maker predicted, it did not take long for ISIS to turn its gaze towards the South Caucasus - specifically, to Georgia, with a threatening narrative-filled video message appearing on one of their propaganda websites. Nevertheless, the shock and disbelief in society was almost palpable and there is a tangible sense of confusion in the air when discussing issues as to how capable Georgia might be in handling its security, if the threats ever start
to materialize. Voice of America’s very own Anna Kalandadze sat down with Mr. Ilan Berman, Vice President of American Foreign Policy Council, to discuss these issues.

Read the Georgian version of the article on Voice of America website.

“I do not think it is realistic to think of ISIS, no matter how appealing it is for Georgian Muslims, overthrowing a government and establishing an Islamic state there. In this regard, Georgia finds itself in a better place than other countries in the post-Soviet space, like Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan.”

Interview with Ilan Berman, Vice President, American Foreign Policy Council

– How can you explain the latest message of ISIS to Georgia at this time? What can our government do to root out the beginnings of radicalism in the country and stop the menace?

– The ISIS message is a clear signal that the organization is continuing to expand its strategic horizons further and further away from Iraqi and Syrian geotv.gebattlefields where they have both potential and interest to subvert political structures. This has certainly been the case in the Russian Federation in recent months and the message to Georgia over the weekend is an indication that the organization is looking at the post-Soviet space as a whole.

What we are seeing in the last several weeks in places like Paris and elsewhere is that the fight against ISIS is no longer confined to the Middle East. It’s increasingly spreading out to different regions, including Europe as well as Eurasia. Thus, whatever the government of Georgia does in support of operations against ISIS - not within its own borders but outside them, as part of a global effort - will have benefits because it will limit the group’s ability over time to reach out and touch places in the Caucasus and Eurasia, like Georgia.

– The problem so far seemed to be limited to the Pankisi Gorge; there was no strong indication from elsewhere in Georgia, at least. You speak about the terrorist group’s intent to spread the message – is this what’s happening across Georgia now? Moreover, is this an internal or external factor?

– I think it is a little bit of both. Certainly, the instability that accompanied the influx of Islamic radicals into the Pankisi Gorge over the last decade in Georgia has created some members of this community that can be mobilized by ISIS, but in Georgia the threat is external, not internal. There is no huge population inside the country that is acting to mobilize against the state; it is rather an expression of an organization’s ambition and desire to create a regional caliphate and put regional governments on notice that they intend to do just that.

– Would you discuss measures taken to integrate Muslims into the Georgian society? It seems to be an ostentatious point in this narrative.

– It’s a valid point. Across post-Soviet space, groups like ISIS or Al-Qaeda have flourished precisely because there has not been enough outreach, not enough integration or opportunities for the Muslims in these countries. Georgia has done relatively well in a comparative sense, but there is still more to be done to ensure that Muslim community in Georgia, small as it is, becomes more integrated, more vested in the current state and not attracted by groups like ISIS.

– Is jihadism a real threat in Georgia, and if so, what are the motives? Can Russia be fostering it inadvertently?

– In Georgia’s context, jihadism brings the threat of destabilization rather than subversion. I do not think it’s realistic to think of ISIS, no matter how appealing it is for Georgian Muslims, overthrowing a government and establishing an Islamic state there. In this regard, Georgia finds itself in a better place than other countries in the post-Soviet space, like Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan. You are relatively well-off, but the threat to public order and safety of Georgian citizens is significant and should not be ignored. As for Russia, what it’s doing in Syria and the Middle East is often portrayed in the West as an offensive and opportunistic strategy. However, in many ways what Russia is doing is defensive. Russia has seen its foreign jihadists go to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside ISIS; so, Russia would rather fight them in the Middle East than wait for them to come home and take the fight inside its borders.

– How optimistic are you about a global fight against ISIS?

– I would like to say I am very optimistic, but we have seen the story before.  In the past, terror attacks have galvanized the global attention for a time but they have not resulted in a concerted effort and international coalition against jihadism. We saw France’s robust initial response after the Paris attacks but now it is talking about no troops on the ground and limiting its investment into an aerial campaign. This avoids the larger issue. It has to be a multilateral fight, but also a fight by a coalition of foreign countries.  If it’s done piecemeal, the impact is going to be diluted and we are going to see more of the same.

By Anna Kalandadze, VOA Georgian Service

Read the Georgian version of the article on Voice of America website.

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