On the Margins of Citizenship and States: Refugees of Chechnya in Pankisi

The article briefly examines the history and experience of Chechen and Kist refugees who have arrived in Georgia since the late 1990s. It also evaluates state policies towards Kist and Chechen refugees from the 2000s till the present day. Currently, there are about a hundred people in the Pankisi Gorge who still hold refugee status and are unable to obtain Georgian citizenship. Most of them were born in Georgia or have been living and working in Georgia for decades. The author describes the drastic revisions of policies since 2015, which pose insurmountable barriers for refugees to acquire citizenship.

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Tako Robakidze

The article is based on six-month-long fieldwork conducted in Pankisi in 2021-2023, forty official interviews conducted between 2019-2023 and countless informal conversations with Kist activists and friends. The employees of the Kakheti Regional Development Foundation (KRDF) have provided invaluable insight into the issues concerning Kist and Chechen refugees.

In March 2023, Malika[1] and I are sitting in the corridor of one of Pankisi's village schools. Malika is an active woman in the community, a middle-aged school teacher, who shares the story of coming to Pankisi from Chechnya during the Second Chechen War and her experience of living as a refugee: “My children and I still have refugee status and we only have Georgian residence permits. My children, out of which two were born here, are not citizens of Georgia and only hold resident permits. A few years ago my daughter and I applied for Georgian citizenship. I answered 30 out of 30 questions correctly on the exam, but we were still denied citizenship. Georgian is a third language for me, but I learned it perfectly and teach in Georgian. I have been living in Georgia for decades, I’ve worked here for decades. For a period of time, they gave citizenship to many people, my husband also got citizenship then. I worked as a teacher for two shifts each day and had a salary of 170 GEL. Perhaps at that time, even the meager refugee allowance, 28 GEL, was a large sum. Perhaps I could not give it up, and my children and I did not apply for citizenship back then. And as of a few years ago, I have been denied. There are only a few families left in Pankisi who still do not hold citizenship. After being refused, I have no motivation to apply again. Besides, the fee for the application has increased so much that I can no longer afford 400-500 GEL per family member.” According to the data gathered by the local organization Kakheti Regional Development Foundation (KRDF), there are about a hundred people in Pankisi Gorge[2] who, similarly to Malika, still hold refugee status and have not managed to acquire citizenship; moreover, up to ten people have no valid documents at all.

Mariam Shalvashvili holds a scholarship from the Heinrich Boell Foundation (hbs) Tbilisi Office in the framework of our cooperation with the Ph.D. program in Social and Cultural Anthropology at Ilia State University.

My doctoral research investigates issues of citizenship in Pankisi. Its purpose is to describe the relations of the Pankisi Gorge residents with the state, and how the state’s policies towards Pankisi residents over the past two decades have impacted Kists’ views of the state. During the research process, it soon became clear that the Pankisi residents considered the arrival of refugees in 1999-2000 as one of the most transformative events in the valley. It was from this period that Pankisi came to be widely seen as a dangerous place within the Georgian imagination, the traces of which are still visible in Pankisi today. Kists have to continuously prove their loyalty to Georgia. They are forced to convince the rest of the Georgians that peace prevails in the valley. According to the tourists who come to Duisi, many taxi drivers in Tbilisi refuse to go to Pankisi and try to convince the travelers that it is dangerous to even step foot in the Gorge. These representations are not simply stereotypes; they also dominate the state’s policies. For years, the Georgian state has perceived the valley from the security perspective, which has given rise to countless traumatic experiences in Pankisi. This understanding and policy determine the fate and daily life of many people – numerous young people have left Georgia, and about a hundred people remain without citizenship. In order to rethink these policies and ideas, first and foremost, the voices of the people who live in Pankisi should be heard and the problems that concern Pankisi residents should be addressed.

The Beginning of Refugee Life

The history of Chechen refugees in Georgia begins with the second war in Chechnya. Kists recall the 80s and 90s, from the final years of the Soviet Union to the beginning of the second war in Chechnya when a large number of Kists left Pankisi, driven by the onset of economic collapse in Georgia. The majority of Kists living in Georgia consider both Chechnya and Georgia to be their homeland since Kists, Ingush and Chechens belong to the same Vainakh ethnic group. Therefore, many Kists decided to go to Chechnya in order to resolve their economic difficulties. Many of them went to Chechnya seasonally, for temporary work, however, many Kist families permanently moved from Pankisi to Chechnya. In the spring of 2023 in Duisi, a local housewife told me about her youth in an informal conversation while preparing khachapuri with nettles: "In the 90s the valley was practically empty. When I walked down the street, I thought it was just me and the elderly. I think that if the war had not happened, Pankisi would have been completely depleted and there would be almost no one here these days." In addition to economic problems, the population decline of Pankisi was caused by another factor – in 1991 independence was declared in Chechnya and the de facto Republic of Chechnya (later, the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria) was created. After several years of tensions, the occasional skirmishes between the Russian state forces and the Chechens turned into a full-out war in 1994; the first Chechen war ended two years later with the Chechens’ victory. During the period of Chechnya's independence and its victorious war with the Russians, Kists went to Chechnya to pursue education or to seek work, hoping for a better income and future, and brought their families along. Some of the Kists also fought in the First Chechen War. Even after the start and end of the first war, only a small number of Kists returned to Pankisi.

After the start of the second Chechen war in 1999, the state of affairs in Chechnya became extremely dreadful, therefore, those Kists and Chechens who had relatives in the Pankisi valley started to relocate to Georgia. They were also accompanied by Chechens who did not know much about the Pankisi Gorge and their motivation was mainly to escape the war. According to various sources, there were between 7,000[3] and 12,000[4] refugees in the Pankisi Valley after the start of the Second Chechen War. According to the annual statistics of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about 8,000 refugees were registered in the years between 1999 and 2001[5].

There were many flaws and difficulties in the registration process of refugees from Chechnya. For these and other reasons, it is difficult to determine the exact number of people who arrived in Pankisi. The registration process was also complicated by the fact that along with the Chechen refugees, Kists who had lived in Chechnya for several years and those who had seasonal jobs there also returned to Pankisi. Some of the Kists were granted refugee status because they had lived in Chechnya for years and had Chechen documents, however, some of them returned to Pankisi as Georgian citizens. It should be noted that a small number of the refugees that were initially granted refugee status were later deprived of it. Those who did hold refugee status received humanitarian aid from international organizations. During the deep economic crisis that the country and the Pankisi Valley were engulfed in, the boxes of humanitarian products meant survival from starvation for many people. Furthermore, fighters of the Second Chechen War (1999-2009) also arrived in the valley. Many of them resided in Pankisi temporarily, only long enough to recuperate, and accounting their numbers was a challenging process. Additionally, in 2000, the process of registration of refugees done by international organizations was halted for several months. Therefore, different sources indicate different numbers of people that arrived in Pankisi after the war in Chechnya.

Life in 2000s Pankisi

Most of the refugees who came to Georgia from Chechnya settled in Pankisi. Chechen refugees were accommodated in schools, hospitals, boarding school buildings and other state owned properties. However, since their number was equal to (or even exceeded) the Kist population living in Pankisi, Kists and representatives of local organizations often recall that almost every single local family had hosted refugees. In the village of Jokolo an interlocutor told me: "Well-furnished rooms, which we were reluctant to utilize for ourselves and were left unused, were now offered to the refugees without much hesitation." Kists sheltered complete strangers for months or years without any compensation.

With the arrival of Kist and Chechen refugees, international organizations and the Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation began working in the Pankisi Valley, registering refugees and providing them with accommodations. International organizations also facilitated the departure of Kist and Chechen refugees to third countries. In a few years, with the involvement of the Russian Federation, a large number of Chechen refugees also returned to Chechnya. The Russian state promised safety to returnees, it even pledged safety to those who fought or opposed the Russian state. However, after a fighter of the Chechen war was promised guarantees of protection by the Russian state but was arrested upon his return to Chechnya despite the promise, the refugees who were most critical of and opposed to Russia no longer believed that they would be able to return to their homeland. In addition, Russia had continued trying to extradite several Chechens from Georgia to Russia in the same period.[6] Therefore, numerous refugees who had adamantly resisted the Russian state moved to third countries, while a small number of them remained in the Pankisi Gorge. Several refugees managed to obtain Georgian citizenship, especially those who were born and raised in Georgia and moved to Chechnya as adults. According to KRDF data, as of 2009, there were approximately 860 people with refugee status in the Pankisi Valley.

During this period, the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees expired for the Chechen refugees and a recommendation was made to the state of Georgia to find a long-term solution and clarify the civil status of about 860 refugees. From 2008-2009, the state chose the policy of integration, meaning the refugees remaining in Pankisi could easily become citizens of Georgia. The vast majority of refugees remaining in Pankisi in 2009 were of Kist origin. They had mostly lived in Chechnya since the Soviet period or the 90s, however, they were historically and culturally connected to Georgia, had close relatives in Pankisi, or were themselves born in Pankisi. A small number of the refugees remaining in the valley were Chechens who had fought against Russia, or were afraid that they would face severe punishment after returning to the Russian Federation, and additionally, had not managed to go to a third country.

In 2009, citizenship procedure was simplified for refugees from Chechnya and many remaining refugees received citizenship by exception. The exceptional rule of obtaining citizenship was mainly intended for investors or persons with special merit towards Georgia. However, the Georgian state supported the extension of this policy and included refugees from Chechnya so that they could become dual citizens. As a consequence of this policy, approximately 530 people managed to obtain dual citizenship, while many others left Georgia. Citizenship was also granted to those who were particularly critical of Russia.

Transformation of the Georgian State Policy

Since 2015, the policy of simplifying citizenship procedures for the refugees has taken a radical turn – the opportunity to obtain citizenship by exception for Kists and Chechens has been revoked. The policy changes started in 2012 but till 2015 the granting of citizenship by exception continued by inertia. Since then, those refugees who apply for Georgian citizenship in the standard manner have been denied. When submitting an application for citizenship in the standard manner, the Georgian state requests a certificate of renunciation of Russian citizenship. This request creates issues for refugees for several reasons. One of the main reasons is that many refugees do not officially have Russian citizenship. They have documents from the de facto republic of Chechnya/Ichkeria, which Russia does not legally recognize. Nor does the Russian state regard these refugees as Russian citizens. Since Georgia also does not officially recognize Ichkeria, it regards the refugees with its documents as Russian citizens. This inconsistency prevents some refugees from obtaining all the necessary documents for the citizenship procedures. However, due to its rigid approach, the state of Georgia does not take this factor into account. The second major issue is that the Russian state issues a certificate of renunciation of citizenship only to those who physically present themselves in Russia and personally request their document. In other words, Georgia instructs people who may be in danger from the Russian state to enter the very same state in the first place.

KRDF is the organization that helps refugees residing in Pankisi to fill out citizenship applications; the organization also directly observes obtaining citizenship processes in this region. Even if certain individuals do not face this barrier, according to the KRDF employees and respondents living in Pankisi, the majority of refugees from Chechnya are denied citizenship. It is obvious that to resolve the issues of Chechen refugees a special mechanism and course of action is required, instead the Georgian state has been choosing a policy of neglect since 2015. Since then, there is still no clear strategy that would ensure the final clarification of the status of refugees remaining in Georgia. Refugees are forced either to request asylum in a third country or to comply and remain as temporary residents of Georgia. Mass refusal of citizenship for refugees is a sign that the current state politics are not aimed at fully resolving the status of refugees. Interestingly, the majority of refugees remaining in the Pankisi Gorge are people who have deep ties with Pankisi and the rest of Georgia. By denying them citizenship, the state restricts their political participation, access to healthcare, social security and other benefits.

“Threat to State Security”

"Threat to state security" is often cited as the reason for refusal of citizenship. This creates a sense among the refugees that the state security services purposefully create barriers in obtaining citizenship. This makes the refugees feel that the state is still pursuing the policy according to which the whole community, Kists and Chechens, is regarded as a threat. It should be noted that the local and international media had also played a big role in the formation of this understanding. This perception is problematic for many reasons, including the fact that instead of integration, it alienates Kists and Chechens, who have a close belonging to the Georgian state. This policy makes the inhabitants of the Pankisi Gorge feel that their belonging to the Georgian state is one-sided.

The security perspective generalizes the activities of individuals to the entire Pankisi Gorge community. This approach places the responsibility for the actions of individuals on the population as a whole. According to this dominant paradigm, all Pankisi residents are a potential threat and must prove their innocence at every step. For example, Pankisi residents are strictly checked at the border of Georgia, and any political activities of Kists are seen as a security concern. These state politics and practices restrain Pankisi inhabitants from accessing their basic rights.

Refugees Today

Pankisi Gorge is also home to people who hold neither refugee status nor Georgian citizenship. In most of these cases, their refugee status was tied to another family member; once their family member received Georgian citizenship, they found themselves without refugee status and citizenship. These individuals are even more vulnerable than people with refugee status.

In everyday conversations, Kists often worry about the fate of their refugee acquaintances. The founder of one of the local organizations in Duisi says with compassion: “My neighbor was born and raised here [in Pankisi]. He has not managed to get Georgian citizenship. He has never been to Russia. He graduated from school here, but still he is not a citizen of any country. Who should he turn to?!" The children of refugees inherited the refugee status, therefore, there are refugees in the valley who have never been to any other country but Georgia; they grew up in Georgia and still cannot get Georgian citizenship.

Back in the school corridor, I ask Malika about her decision to remain in Pankisi. She does not lose her optimism and responds that she is still glad that she chose Georgia: "Many of my relatives went to Europe. I decided to stay here. We went through a difficult period, electricity blackouts, poverty. We have healed our wounds. I am eager to grow professionally and share my experience with many other teachers. My two children did so well on their university entrance exams that they even got additional funding for their studies; however, they are unable to get citizenship." Malika and other refugees do not lose hope that the current policy will change and they will still get Georgian citizenship in the future.

My doctoral research focuses on the difficulties of obtaining citizenship since it reveals the impact of security policies on individuals. Georgian politics are still dominated by the security gaze towards religious and ethnic minorities. As the example of refugees from Chechnya illustrates, security policies have a profound impact on the daily lives of various communities, although they are often carried out without criticism or reflection. It is also significant that in recent years, a particular "development" policy can be observed to be dominating in Georgian regions; this policy sees the regions as a capital-generating resource. Within the framework of this policy, the state tries to exploit important resources and spaces for the regions without the deliberation and consent from local populations; it also tries to implement the infrastructural projects which might cause long-term harm to these regions. The goal of my doctoral research is to highlight the consequences and livelihood impacts of such politics. Additionally, the project aims to critically understand the state policy on security and development. The doctoral project is an attempt to voice the concerns and opinions of non-dominant religious and ethnic groups living in the regions and, to the best of my abilities, create grassroots-based knowledge about minorities.

The content of the publication is the sole responsibility of the author and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the Heinrich Boell Foundation Tbilisi Office - South Caucasus Region

[1] In order to preserve the anonymity of the informants, all the names mentioned in the article are pseudonyms. 

[2] In Georgian, ‘Pankisis Kheoba’. Often Kists refer to the area simply as ‘Kheoba’. Georgian Kheoba translates as both ‘valley’ and ‘gorge’ into English. While ‘Pankisi Gorge’ is a more common translation into English, Pankisi villages are in the valley, therefore, both of these translations make appearance in the article.

[3] Tamar Kekelidze, Pankisi Presis Purtslebze [Pankisi in the Press Papers], (Tbilisi: International Scientific Institute of the Peoples of Caucasia, 2007), 11.

[4] The number of refugees that the inhabitants of the Pankisi Gorge and KRDF employees believe arrived in Pankisi

[6] Brian Sells and Jack Ziebell, Silence Kills: Abuse of Chechen Refugees in Georgia, (Tbilisi: The Human Rights Information and Documentation Center (HRIDC), 2006.