Zaur Gumashvili, chairman of the board of Pankisi’s Council of Elders, discussed with OC Media the fading role of Elders in the valley, the rise of the Salafi movement, the subsequent cultural decline, and an action plan how to stop it.
Since the 1990s, Pankisi Valley, in the northeast of Georgia, has attracted international attention as a wild and dangerous place, due to it’s association with Chechen fighters, drug trafficking, and violence. Although nowadays Pankisi is a peaceful rural area like many others in Georgia, it has hit the headlines once again following the escalation of the war in Syria. Several high ranking members of the Islamic State have come from Pankisi, including former ‘Minister of War’ Tarkhan Batirashvili, better known as Omar al-Shishani, with many others joining the group’s ranks in Syria.
In the past, a local ‘Council of Elders’ has enjoyed the highest authority in the valley. However, changes in the valley’s religious landscape have weakened this authority, with the valley’s Salafi community increasingly questioning the council’s role.
Pankisi Valley is populated mainly by ethnic Chechens called Kists; virtually all are Sunni Muslims. Traditionally, the majority of these have subscribed to Sufism, also referred to as ‘traditional Islam’ because of its heavy reliance on Chechen traditions. However today, an increasing number of people in the valley identify as Salafi, followers of an ultra-conservative movement within Sunni Islam claiming to follow the most correct interpretations of holy scriptures and rejecting traditions they consider ‘non-Islamic’.
OC Media previously discussed religious divisions in the valley, the role of the Council of Elders, and the involvement of the government in Pankisi valley with Salafi imam Bekkhan Pareulidze. This time, we asked a member of the Council of Elders, Zaur Gumashvili, for his thoughts.
Who are the Elders and what role do they play in Pankisi valley?
The Council of Elders is a democratically elected body which has played an important role in the life of the Vainakh peoples (Chechens and Ingush). According to tradition, Elders have been elected during a specially held public assembly. The Council debates the traditions, customs, problems, and joys of the community.
Lately, the Council of Elders has managed relations with the authorities. We can confidently say that the Council plays an important role regarding official policy towards the valley.
As a result of such a cooperation, many issues relevant for the valley have been decided. One example is the fact that Pankisi was granted the official status of a ‘mountainous region’ [which entitles its inhabitants to tax exemptions and other privileges], which happened due to steady involvement from the Elders.
What happens when a dispute is considered not by the Elders, but by the state?
The Council of Elders handles any sort of dispute, such as theft or murder, according to the customary law. The Council elects from among its own ranks two advocates ,to represent each side in a dispute in order to consider the case.
Even If an official court becomes involved in a dispute, it still won’t be considered resolved as long as the traditional court doesn’t make a final decision, which usually means reconciling both sides or imposing a sentence on one of the sides, such as a fine that will need to be paid to the victim.
This is how issues become definitively resolved.
Today, what is the situation in Pankisi valley like?
We can see that a new way of thinking has arrived in Pankisi and I want to stress that it isn’t progress or an evolution. We can see that certain young people who received education in Arab countries and who returned to Pankisi have other issues on their agenda.
There has been a shift towards religious matters. The things that should be most important for a nation, ‘homeland, language, and faith’, as [Georgian writer] Ilia Chavchavadze once wrote, have become secondary. Religious matters have become dominant over the Chechen and Vainakh identity. For them, to be Vainakh isn’t the most important thing. The dogmatism of radical Islam requires religion to be at the forefront.
Our language and Vainakh identity have become secondary, which I consider to be a major step backwards. For example, the Arabs have not rejected their Arab identity and they don’t say that the Arab world is irrelevant to them.
How strong is the position of the Elders in Pankisi?
When we say that the Elders have lost their position, it is largely true, because for these people [followers of radical Islam], the Elders’ position on adatebi (customary law) is completely unacceptable.
They appeared in the last two decades and it’s clear that the role of the Elders has been weakened.
Still, about 70% of the population still follows us. The majority lives our lives and follows our distinctive traditions. I don’t know what the future holds, but the fact that our adatebi and customs have are being uprooted is a huge tragedy for our nation. We will be left with nothing valuable. They argue something which is unimaginable — that we will be left with nothing but religion.
What are the reasons behind the weakened position of the Council?
This new, radical movement is the main reason behind the significant weakening of the role of the Elders. I and the whole Council of Elders urge the government to take a side — either to support radical Islam or the Elders.
The Council, for all of its existence, has always supported the state policies, while radical Islam is one step away from terrorism and we have many examples that prove it.
The problem of radicalism is a global problem. This ideology has spread across Europe and other regions of the world, so the government should play an active role in this matter.
What sort of danger does this movement pose to the valley and its culture?
Issues of culture, education, identity, and everyday life are all connected to one another. If one of them is missing, it would be a tragedy for any nation. If a Chechen or an Ingush man remembers that his forefathers were good dancers, and this is what has been characteristic for his nation, he will be predisposed to dancing and singing in his life.
In the Arab world, Arab culture isn’t ignored. Arabs continue developing their dances and music and I can’t understand how they can bring this ideology here which fully ignores our culture.
Where does the association of Pankisi with terrorism come from?
In the late 1990s, Pankisi experienced its most difficult times. There was an influx of Chechen refugees as well as criminals from different countries, which brought all kinds of people to the valley.
Law enforcement agencies also contributed to crime in Pankisi, while at the same time criminal groups consolidated in the valley, with connections to Georgian and foreign criminals.
Russia further exacerbated the situation. They declared to the whole world that there were drug manufacturers is Pankisi and that there was a large amount of weapons here. Obviously, these things existed at the time, but not on the scale that Russia claimed.
The population of Pankisi began to fight this stereotype. I was in a position of power at the time — I was Deputy Governor. The whole world learnt of Pankisi as a dangerous place abundant with weapons. This was the result of Russian political involvement.
In some cases, our government also contributed to the spread of this stereotype.
Obviously, the majority of the population had nothing to do with this and were in fact, the ones affected. Before, we were famous throughout Georgia and the Caucasus for our hospitality, conduct, and identity. After all of this happened, we lost our standing and we found ourselves in a negative light.
What role did the Elders play in improving the situation in the valley?
The Elders’ role in resolving these issues was huge. The Council existed at that time as well and I must tell you that it played a very important role.
We held frequent meetings with the then state minister Avtandil Jorbenadze. We agreed that someone who will pursue a correct policy in the valley must lead the Council of Elders. Soon, Suleiman Gumashvili was elected the chairman of the Council and began actively implementing government policies in the valley.
During one of the assemblies, in a meeting with the leaders of one local gang, I didn’t feel any support, so I decided to resign from my position. People asked me not do it, because at the time we were working on releasing three men who were abducted in Pankisi. I was told that leaving at that time would be tantamount to treason.
The Council of Elders established units of the so-called People’s Army, which was tasked with returning cattle stolen from neighbouring villages and searching for abducted people. They would look for them everywhere — in the mountains, houses… We were making every effort to improve the situation.
The Council of Elders took concrete steps in a period when the police was absent from the valley. The Council has always played the role of the guardian of peace on behalf of the state.
What sort of involvement would you like to see in the valley on behalf of the state and the nongovernmental sector?
The government should open official religious schools and show the red card to unofficial ones. This process should be monitored by the state and a comprehensive plan should be drawn up, with the involvement of a number of ministries, in order to strengthen cultural activities in Pankisi Valley.
I’ve always insisted that there should be a dance and singing club in Pankisi financed by the state. We have only one musical ensemble in all 17 villages — the Pankisi Ensemble — and it can’t be so that it has only seven or eight members.
Important education projects should also be developed. Lately, such projects have been implemented by the Ministry of Education, and we’re watching developments closely. We have also demanded an increase in the number of student stipends from 14 to 20–24, so more young people from Pankisi have the chance to study at university.
The Agency for Religious Issues needs to become engaged as well when it comes to opening religious schools.
The five local [Sufi] imams need to receive a salary, as radical Islam receives huge funds. We, ordinary residents don’t know where their money comes from. Does the government know?
If the government wants to reverse the trend [the spreading of radical Islam], the aforementioned issues should be addressed.
Obviously, education is the most important issue when it comes to reversing this trend. The majority of people involved in this [radical Islamic] movement are uneducated. Their leaders have a certain degree of education and we also know that they have various assets at their disposal, such as properties and businesses in Tbilisi.
The government knows about these issues and has researched them, which is why the reversal of the trend depends on the government. A reversal will mean that people will stand on the side of the government, as they did during critical moments in our history. If the government doesn’t want to get involved — these issues will come to them like a boomerang.
What caused the strengthening of the radical movement?
We have seen that a few dozen young people went to study [abroad] and returned with specific instructions. It is clear that they have a plan, which they brought with them.
In that period [late 1990s and early 2000s] the economic situation was very difficult and people were extremely poor. In the situation where this concrete religious movement was maximally financed, some young people were practically forced to join it — especially when their peers were telling them that it was the way which would bring them to Heaven.
Although none of the Elders has religious education, they have studied the dogmatics of traditional Islam [Sufism] on their own initiative. These studies, however, can’t be called scientific.
We’re trying to improve this situation. We’ve been asking in Chechnya to have 5–10 young people receive a religious education there, but they haven’t helped us.
If the Elders can only sustain themselves on their pensions, how can they reverse this [radical] trend? I’m the only one of the Elders who receives a professor’s salary, others rely only on their pensions. No-one finances us and no-one gives anything to us.
We are working on our initiative to support the process [of development of Vainakh culture] in the valley. Our forefathers did it and we’re trying to preserve their heritage. It would be good if someone could help us, but no helping hand is visible at the moment and our voice is the voice of one calling in the wilderness.