Wahhabi influence has grown in Georgia’s Pankisi valley, where young men and women yearn to wage holy war in Syria.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says Moscow has intelligence showing that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group is operating a training base in the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia, a claim immediately denied by Tbilisi.
Lavrov made the allegation at his annual press conference on Tuesday, saying “ISIL militants are using this hardly accessible territory to train, rest and replenish their supplies”.
Long-running volatility in the Pankisi region previously led to Russia imposing visa restrictions on Georgian citizens in 2000. More recently, the area has been known as a hot spot for ISIL’s recruitment of fighters to take part in the war in Syria.
Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili responded to Lavrov’s claims, denying the existence of an ISIL base inside Georgian borders and saying that his government was in full control of the Pankisi Gorge.
“A few people from this Gorge went to Syria to fight in the Islamic State, though a strict control is imposed on their entry back to [Georgia],” Kvirikashvili said.
“I can directly say that there is no terrorist threat in the Pankisi Gorge at the present time.”
He also responded to Russia’s recent move to simplify visa requirements for Georgian citizens, saying it was “a very positive decision”.
But he said the restoration of diplomatic relations with Moscow would come with preconditions relating to “the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia”.
The relationship between Russia and Georgia has been tense since former pro-West president Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in Tbilisi in 2003.
The tension started to bubble over in 2006 when Moscow imposed an embargo on Georgian wine and mineral water imports and used cargo planes to deport thousands of Georgians.
The confrontation led to a five-day war over Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia in 2008.
Georgia’s current government started making efforts to improve the relationship with Russia after it came to power in 2012, but diplomatic ties remain to be forged.