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Kist Chechens & Avars in Georgia: Considering the Destabilising Factors Within the Regional Security Complex


Kacper Sienicki - Second-year student of the Erasmus Mundus Joint Master in Central and East European, Russian and Eurasian Studies



The Chechens and Avars have a long history in the Caucasus region, particularly in the Northern part of the mountain range. However, these two nations live not only in the part of the region that is now part of the Russian Federation. Kist Chechens and Avars are ethnic minorities residing in Georgia, primarily concentrated in the Pankisi Gorge and Kvareli district of the Kakheti region, respectively. Both of these areas are located close to the Russian border. With approximately five thousand Kists and three thousand Avars in Georgia, both communities have historical ties to national minority republics in Russia, namely Chechnya and Dagestan, where most of their compatriots reside, and many have relatives in these regions.


The presence of Kist Chechens and Avars in Georgia and their dual affiliation may raise questions about their loyalty to Tbilisi and their potential impact on the stability in the Caucasus region. This paper aims to provide a comprehensive analysis of the situation on the ground, identify potential destabilising factors, and examine the potential scenarios of instability in the Caucasus subregion, focusing on the involvement of Kists and Avars for Georgian statehood. For this purpose, the paper will delve into the theoretical framework of the Regional Security Complex Theory, considering the role of the local great power - Russia.


Theoretical framework


The Regional Security Complex Theory, developed by representatives of the Copenhagen School of International Relations Barry Buzan and Ole Wæver, is a framework in IR that seeks to understand security dynamics at the regional level. According to this theory, security issues are primarily shaped by the interactions among neighbouring states rather than by global considerations alone (Buzan and Waever, 2003). The RSC theory emphasises the importance of regional factors, such as historical relationships, geographical barriers and proximity, as well as shared cultural or economic ties, in shaping the security dynamics within a specific region. According to Buzan and Wæver theory, Georgia, from the very beginning of its independence, became a part of the Post-Soviet Regional Security Complex centred around Russia, facing challenges related to Moscow's influence, including those on internal ethnic conflicts with minority groups and on the broader geopolitical shift towards closer ties with the EU and NATO. According to RSC theory, the Caucasus should be called a mini-complex, but this paper suggests that after more than 20 years, this term is no longer accurate enough. Over the past two decades, regional dynamics have continued to evolve, gaining greater subjectivity and gradually reducing the influence of regional great power Russia. Thus, this paper already assesses the Caucasus as a subcomplex. Therefore, Georgia's security situation primarily remains intertwined with the broader dynamics of the Caucasian subcomplex of the Post-Soviet RSC.


Kists & Avars in Georgia as a part of Post-Soviet Regional Security Complex


In order to analyse the role of both examined nations in Georgia's security architecture today, as part of the Regional Security Complex, it is worth understanding how they emerged in the South Caucasus and tracing the historical dynamics involving them for a better understanding of local conditions. Kists and Avars began settling in Georgia in the 19th century due to the Caucasus War that ended with Russia's conquest of the North Caucasus. Their presence was usually characterised by a high degree of alienation in relation to the Georgian population of the region, particularly given the significant differences in religion and language, as well as due to the geographical isolation of the regions they inhabit.


A significant event for both Kists and Avars was the cruel deportation of Chechens and Ingush from the North Caucasus in 1944 for their supposed collaboration with Nazi Germany (Flemming, 1998). The Kists were the only group of Vaynakhs who were not deported. However, the mass expulsion resulted in many losing family ties with relatives living on the other side of the mountains. Simultaneously, Georgian Avars were resettled in Chechnya and occupied the houses abandoned by the Chechens. This state of affairs continued until 1957, when, on the wave of the thaw following Stalin's death, the Chechens returned to their native lands from Central Asia, and the Avars began to return to Georgia, but often to different villages from where they had previously lived (Arkhipova, 2005). The subsequent significant changes affecting their lives after the expulsions and forced migrations from the middle of the XX century came in the 1990s following the collapse of the USSR. During the process of the disintegration of the former Soviet empire, those parts of the former Russian SSR which, at the suggestion of Boris Yeltsin, were taking as much sovereignty as they could cope with (Lapidus, 1998) and displayed independence aspirations, were not much later subjected to securitisation by Moscow, and the matter of not allowing these republics to be separate began to be treated as a critical issue for Russia's security perception (McDonald, 2008).


For this research, the Chechen wars were a key event, as they significantly shaped the security architecture in the Caucasus and influenced the reality of both examined nations. For the Kists in particular, the reality of other Vaynakhs fighting close to Pankisi opened their eyes to many issues, as a significant part of them were unaware of their close ties to Chechnya until the 1990s (Wakizaka, 2019). The long-standing isolation and separate identification of the Kists as people associated solely with the Pankisi Gorge began to evolve due to economic migration in the early 1990s, of which a significant part fell on Chechnya, where the Kists integrated quite quickly into the new community due to existing similarities (Tsulaia, 2011). Although many only learned more about their Chechenness in the face of the influx of refugees from neighbouring Ichkeria. Since the start of the Second Chechen War, around 7,000 refugees from Chechnya have reportedly made their way to Pankisi Gorge, although according to some sources, the number may have reached even as many as 12,000.[1]

Russian authorities claimed that armed rebel groups allegedly infiltrated the civilian population fleeing into Georgian territory. According to Moscow, militants had begun using the passes of the Pankisi Gorge as well as the Khevsureti, Pshavi, and Tusheti regions of Georgia to return to Chechnya, where they supposedly carried out terrorist activities against the Russian military forces and administration (Kurtsikidze and Chikovani, 2002). Moreover, while it is true that the Chechen rebels were using the Pankisi valley as a base to carry out specific operations, something the Shevardnadze administration could not reject either, many of Russia's accusations seemed ridiculous or, as a minimum, exaggerated, such as the accusations of 20 military bases of Ichkerian fighters on Georgian territory (Nygren, 2007). These accusations may have been based on a real concern for Moscow, but even if they were, they were always subjected to careful shaping or a complete reversal of the core of the problem for the sake of an appropriate narrative. It seems reasonable to draw attention to the fact that it is still the case today, as it was at the beginning of the 21st century.

Russia always used the tactic of weaponisation of different issues in order to achieve its chosen objectives. Concerning Georgia and in the context of the conflict in the North Caucasus, Russia used also, the issue of the raid on the territory of separatist Abkhazia, and more specifically, the Kodori Gorge, by the Chechen field commander Ruslan Gelaev's unit, during which up to 40 people were killed.[2] Then, the subordinated to Moscow Abkhazian authorities tried to create a narrative according to which this was supposed to be prepared as part of Georgia's larger plan to subjugate this separatist republic under the motive of establishing order to prevent rebels from attacking Russia from Georgian territory.[3]According to another version, there was a group in Russia that aimed to discredit Georgia by proving that Tbilisi is involved with and protects "terrorists". Some Russian media also suggested that Gelaev and Shevardnadze had a meeting in September where they agreed to capture an airfield in southern Russia to force Moscow to agree to peace talks with Chechnya.[4]

This state of affairs, which presented Georgia as an auxiliary of Chechnya's freedom fighters, matched Moscow's demands to 'bring order' to the gorge backed by threats to use Russian military units to do so. This, together with several incursions of Russian helicopters into the airspace over Pankisi in late 1999 and early 2000, as well as the bombing of Pankisi Gorge first in 2001 and then in 2002, which killed one person,[5] were aimed to influence Shevardnadze's fears of dragging Sakartvelo into the war and imposing the decisions Russia expected Tbilisi to take (Wakizaka, 2019). The operation of subordination of this complicated region was also encouraged by the US decision to send advisors to Georgia to train the country's counterinsurgency troops in the wake of 9/11 and rumours that Al Qaeda terrorists were operating in Pankisi Gorge (Kurtsikidze and Chikovani, 2002).

The situation in Pankisi Gorge after the second Chechen war, with military operations on its territory, caused a perception of it as 'wild and uncontrolled'. This state of affairs, the refugee crisis, and poor economic conditions influenced the complicated and tense situation there, paving the way for further radicalisation. Moreover, although most of the refugees have left Pankisi rather quickly, the valley remains the country's major stronghold of another problematic issue of radical Islam, that potentially poses a threat to the stability of not only Georgia but the entire Caucasus subcomplex. Evidence of this can be seen in the fact that at least thirty individuals out of five thousand Pankisi residents have joined the ranks of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, thus making the Kists the national group with the highest average rate of joining ISIS (Cecire, 2015).

Kist ISIS Commander Tarkhan Batirashvili - Abu Umar al-Shishani (left)

The role of radical Islam after 2011, when the Caucasian supporters of these ideas began to leave for the Middle East, started to raise concerns in many places around the world. Of course, for Georgia, the problem of religious extremism and the possibility of terrorist acts or operations in cooperation with militants fighting in Syria also became present issues. However, apart from an incident with not entirely clear circumstances in Lopota Gorge, which could suggest such links and the possibility of operations on Georgian territory,[6] it cannot be said that this problem has truly existed. Nowadays, in the context of the collapse of the Islamic caliphate project, which attracted and eliminated the most radical individuals, this issue is no longer of current concern and relevance.

However, Russia's position may complicate the religious issue further. Pankisi Gorge has been portrayed in Russian narratives as a source of threat and a nest of terrorism, with the implication that the Georgian government lacks control over the region (Chikovani, 2020). Therefore, when considering this issue in the context of stability in Georgia, we should keep in mind that even if radical Islam per se does not pose a serious threat to the stability of the state anymore, being a part of the RSC centred around Russia, such a threat may arise if Moscow securitises the issue. The need to stabilise the situation in the 'radical region' of Georgia can be used as a pretext for a possible operation on its territory to ensure security allegedly. It can be used in geopolitical competition under favourable conditions. Also, in the context of religion, it is worth mentioning the influence of the Georgian Orthodox Church as an anti-Western entity often spreading a pro-Russian and anti-Muslim agenda, which can be used instrumentally in the context of an information war in order to strengthen splits in Georgian society and create instability.

Diagram showing the context of presenting the Pankisi Gorge in Russian propaganda (Chikovani, 2020)

Despite some similarities, the Avars case is different from the Kists, and so are the potential destabilising factors arising from their presence in Georgia. After the independence that Sakartvelo restored, Zviad Gamsakhurdia came to power in the country, and his nationalist rhetoric significantly influenced the alienation of the minorities. Influenced by these narratives, Gamsakhurdia supporters blockaded Avar villages, and although this did not end in bloodshed, eventually, an atmosphere of mistrust intensified between the nations that exist to this day, with many Avars departed from the country (Pająk, 2018). The natural direction of their migration was Dagestan, where the majority of them had relatives and which, in Soviet times, was in many ways closer to them than the Georgian SSR because many Avars had worked and studied in Makhachkala and maintained close relations with relatives from Dagestan. The situation changed significantly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as communication with Dagestan became much more difficult, which was further exacerbated during the tension in Georgian-Russian relations and the closure of the border between 2006 and 2010. These developments and the isolation that occurred make one reflect on the problem of loyalty to Tbilisi, especially in the context of various testimonies about the high degree of vulnerability of Georgian Avars to adopt Moscow's agenda.

In Avar villages like Saruso, for example, it is not unusual to hear greetings or see pictures of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, many repeat claims they have heard in the Russian media. Thus, their vulnerability to Russian propaganda cannot be underestimated, especially in light of the ongoing Russian war against Ukraine. It is worth noting that some of their relatives from Dagestan are actively involved in fighting alongside Russian forces in Ukraine, which they do not condemn.[7] This connection might further perpetuate support for Russia among significant sections of the Avar population in Georgia, including in the case of Russian aggression against Georgia. When one also takes into account that together with these narratives, the presence of Russian citizenship often goes hand in hand, the Avars are a potential subject of the securitisation process on the part of Russia, through the presumed need to protect Russian citizens and 'our people' from Georgian oppression, which could significantly influence local dynamics.

Avar man greeting Russia in Saruso village (

Avars may not have faced the same level of radicalization in the context of religion as Kists, however issues such as female rights violations, including forced circumcisions and arranged marriages, (Nodia, 2019) raise concerns about the prospects for better integration into Georgian society. While the issue of Georgian identity among Avars and their political loyalty to Tbilisi is debatable and needs to be better investigated, in terms of research on the Kists, it is noticeable that loyalty to Tbilisi, as well as Georgian identity, is commonly mentioned along with Kist-Chechen. As in the case of the Avars, it is political sympathies with Russia that are of great concern; in the case of the Kists, it is expected to consider the anti-Russian Chechen leaders of the Republic of Ichkeria, Dzhokhar Dudayev, and Alan Maskhadov, as heroes (Wakizaka, 2019). It is the harsh experience of the Chechen wars that has a decisive influence here on the attitude toward those who fought against its Moscow instigators.

Pankisi Gorge, Flag of Ichkeria and Georgia (Sulkhan Bordzikashvili)

However, this approach also has another dimension worth examining: attitude towards the local authority in Grozny. The Kadyrov clan is perceived in the Pankisi Valley in various ways. The issue of bringing the war to the end, as well as the improvement of economic conditions or symbolic things such as the construction of a huge mosque, can influence the positive perception of the situation in Chechnya. In turn, many people who have a direct connection to Chechnya are afraid to criticise Kadyrov because of the possibility of repression. Although for many Kists, totalitarian rule and loyalty to Moscow make them feel negative about the Chechen leader, many locals do not consider the criteria of democracy to be very important in their assessment (Wakizaka, 2019). This makes the Kadyrovtsy seek to study the situation on the ground and the reaction of the Kists to their presence, as exemplified by the provocation in June 2018 when cars with Russian plates carrying Akhmat Kadyrov portraits and flags entered the Pankisi valley under the shouts of 'Akhmat Power'. The locals reacted decisively to such a display of infiltration, and the provocateurs received no support.[8]

This makes another theoretical consideration worth mentioning here. Based on RSC theory, the Caucasus subcomplex can be described as an isolated zone between the larger patterns of regional security dynamics: Russia is the only great power of the Post-Soviet RSC and the Middle Eastern RSC with regional powers Turkey and Iran. It is a well-known fact that both Turkey and Iran have tried to influence Georgian Muslims by financing the construction of mosques, and funding religious organisations, as well as the education of Georgian citizens in their countries (Falkowski and Lang, 2015). However, this dynamic applies more to Muslims from Adjara and the Azeri minority, while in the case of Kists and Avars, it is almost insignificant and much more relevant is another theory.

Considering that natural barriers define and shape the dynamics within the RSC, one can expect that interactions between the North and South of Caucasus will be significantly impeded. This is indeed the case here, but what makes an example of these two minorities particularly interesting is that there is a spillover between two parts of the subcomplex located on different sides of the mountain range. And it is this spillover at the microscale of small isolated communities that is the key determining factor here. In Avars's case, spillover is the spread of a pro-Russian stand, supporting policies of Putin coming from the North to the South Caucasus. This is the case not only for Georgia but also Azerbaijan, where Avars live in much bigger numbers, and they have fewer freedoms and are suppressed by Aliyev's regime. Thus potential implications for the region may affect not only Georgia but also Azerbaijan, in case the situation in Russia and Dagestan deteriorates.[9]

According to Paul Goble, what shapes the North Caucasus is the process of ongoing changes and influence within Russia, Islam, and a globalising world (Goble, 2012). When assessing the region and the North Caucasus republics based on these three criteria, we can conclude that one region particularly distinguishes in terms of its role in each. Ramzan Kadyrov, being one of the dozens of heads of the Russian Federation's subjects, stands out for his overly strong influence on general Russian politics and international affairs, in which he actively participates and comments on various issues. He also tries to be active in the religious sphere, as can be seen by the construction of the largest mosque in Europe in Grozny (Russell, 2014). Chechnya, with such a leader, is an entity that conducts dominant, aggressive policies, primarily within the Russian Federation, particularly in the North Caucasus region. However, Kadyrov's hypothetical actions aimed at the destabilisation of Georgia depend on and could be encouraged exclusively by Russia's position and situation in the war against Ukraine. It is difficult to predict how Kadyrov would act in the case of Russia's destabilisation, as even currently, he conducts independent from Moscow policies in many dimensions, being a de facto alien entity, having its own armed forces, with many federal laws not working on Chechen republic territory and hostile policies towards neighbouring republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan.[10] Considering that, North Caucasus can be named a mini-complex centred around Kadyrov's Chechnya, which may bring unpredictable outcomes for the whole Caucasus subcomplex, including Georgia in the case of possible destabilisation of the region.

In the case of this particular research case, the speech of Kadyrov in October 2015 on the border with Georgia regarding possible terrorists who could come from Pankisi to Chechnya should be taken into account, as this could also be assessed as an element of securitisation tactics and preparing the ground for action regarding this Georgian region (Goguadze and Kapanadze, 2015). Also, the presumed reaction of the Kists to such theoretical actions does not make the task of destabilising Georgia any easier, as it is likely that Kadyrov could not count on the support of the civilian population, as was the case with the 2018 provocation. Furthermore, the unresolved issues of Abkhazia and South Ossetia could also become key determining factors in the destabilisation of the whole region, as a potential flashpoint for the whole Georgia that could spillover into multiple regions of the country. The involvement of Northern Caucasian volunteers on the Abkhazian side in the war in the early 90s, as well as the participation of Chechen units in the armed conflicts against the Georgians in the 2008 Russian-Georgian, as well as in Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine, give reason to wonder whether, in favourable circumstances, the Chechens would again fight against the Georgians.

Although the initial failures of the recent Kremlin's war plans have significantly increased the risk of destabilising the country, as exemplified by PMC Wagner's 'march of justice' on Moscow in June 2023 (Dyner, 2023), currently, war in Ukraine is a possible long-term conflict, with quite a stable situation in Russia and the Caucasus. There is a need to understand that Russia still is a great power, being the dominant player in the Post Soviet Regional Security Complex and trying to subjugate those whom they don't control. If Russia falls, international actors may be too busy dealing with the outcomes of what's going on in Moscow and control of nuclear weapons rather than think much about the Caucasus. Then, none of the external powers may be able to suppress local authority centres, as Kadyrov’s Chechnya through its force as Russia does. Therefore, it is hard to expect penetration of the region from external actors other than Moscow.



Buzan and Wæver theory finds that the Regional Security Complex can only be ultimate once the values are shared. However, it is challenging to achieve such a state of affairs. Thus, there is always some geopolitical game of attempts to expand influence and ensure security through a real or imagined sense of threat - securitisation. Considering the role of Kists and Avars within the Regional Security Complex theory framework and the destabilising factors resulting from their presence, they are issues that are of considerable importance for Georgian statehood stability. Both minorities are highly intriguing for being one of the issues linking the two sides of the subcomplex, namely the South Caucasus mini security complex and North Caucasus mini security complex centred around Kadyrov’s Chechnya. The spillover effect from the North to South Caucasus and Russian perception of threats shape the role of the two minorities within Georgia and have the potential to become a flashpoint in the event of favourable circumstances. Given that local security dynamics are determined by secessionism and Russian involvement, as long as Georgia's territorial integrity is not settled, any minor issue opens up the possibility of further manipulation and subversion by Moscow to deepen the crisis by trying once again to destabilise the situation in the country using other vulnerable minorities. Nevertheless, if there will be some kind of agreement and resolution of Abkhazia and South Ossetia issues, the small minorities of Kists and Avars can hardly imbalance it.


To conclude, when considering the processes in the Caucasus, it should not be overlooked that this is a part of a larger puzzle within a Regional Security Complex centred around a great nuclear power - Moscow, and any significant regional developments are likely to be closely linked to events in the Russian Federation. Also, the outcomes of potential destabilisation scenarios in Georgia depend primarily on Moscow's regime stability and its further developments in war against Ukraine. All this results in the demand that Georgian rulers address Kists and Avars issues through comprehensive and inclusive policies towards both minorities, as well as developing a proactive approach in the international arena, including increasing cooperation with allies and neighbours to mitigate potential threats.


[1] Shalvashvili, M. (2023, December 7). On the Margins of Citizenship and States: Refugees of Chechnya in Pankisi | Heinrich Böll Stiftung | Tbilisi - South Caucasus Region.

[2] Caucasus Report: (October 12, 2001). Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

[3] СГБ Абхазии: Гелаев – авангард армии Грузии. (October 23, 2001). РБК

[4] Caucasus Report: (October 12, 2001). Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

[5] Georgia: Anxiety, fears follow the bombardment - Georgia | ReliefWeb. (2002, August 24).

[6] Paraszczuk, J. (2015, February 25). Russian Citizen Linked To Lopota Gorge Incident Now Heads IS Battalion In Syria. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

[7] Женщины и мужчины Шорохи. Аварское село в Грузии. Радио Свобода.

[8] ГРУЗИЯ. Кадыровцы учинили провокацию в Панкиси. Их серьезно «помяли». (2018, June 16). Kavkazcenter.com

[9] Разделенные между Дагестаном и Грузией кварельские аварцы бьют тревогу. (2012, September 26). ФЛНКА Официальный сайт.

[10] Hauer, N. (2018, December 7). Ramzan Kadyrov’s Next Target. The Moscow Times.



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