Ucha Nanuashvili, Public Defender of Georgia. Photo: ombudsman.ge
Some half-a-million people in Georgia were directly affected by war and suffered moral or material loss. Any government of Georgia is obliged to take effective measures to restore their violated rights and support the reconciliation of divided communities.
As of 2016, there were 273 765 internally displaced persons in Georgia, out of which approximately 200 000-240 000 hail from Abkhazia (including approximately 40 000 ethnic Georgians currently living in Gali), some 20 000-30 000 residents of the Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia (including about 1000 ethnic Georgians from Akhalgori). Many more from conflict regions have left the country and no precise data on them is available.
With this article we would like to respond to the recent discussion about the country’s strategy in relation to its conflict regions. Our key point is that helping both the displaced persons and the ones remaining on the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia without prejudice is not a matter of goodwill, but represents Georgia’s legal obligation.
According to the legislation and state policy of Georgia, people living in the occupied territories are citizens of Georgia, some of whom simply do not possess citizenship documents. Consequently, the Georgian authorities have equal obligation to care for them, in the same way as for the people living in other regions of Georgia. This means that any social or economic project, initiative, or assistance should be available for residents of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia, just as it is offered to the residents of the Imereti, Adjara or Samtskhe-Javakheti regions.
It is thus the obligation of the state to support the local population, be it through funding healthcare for Abkhazians and Ossetians, ensuring access to quality education, assisting Abkhazians in eradicating the consequences of the Asian stink bug invasion or promoting the protection of Abkhaz and Ossetian cultural heritage, including their languages.
Abkhazians and Ossetians were no less affected by the 1990s conflicts and are no less affected by the ongoing Russian occupation than ethnic Georgians. Armed conflicts took place on these territories and many of them suffered directly from the war. Over the years, their health and education systems have been ignored, nepotism and corruption blossomed; the population has been left unprotected against the authoritarian governance and their free expression of opinion has been regarded as “betrayal of the homeland;” civil society organizations and their individual members have been under constant pressure. This obviously is the result of the Russian governance.
Consequently, the principled position of the Georgian authorities should be to care for these people for the same reasons that they care about people divided by barbed wire fences along the dividing line.
Georgia’s commitment stems from the international obligations as well. The Association Agreement with the European Union makes it clear, that the benefits of political and economic integration with the European Union must be made available to all citizens of Georgia, including Abkhazians and Ossetians. Moreover, according to the established practice of the European Court of Human Rights, a state, a certain part of which is controlled by another state, still has a positive obligation to ensure that human rights are protected in the areas outside its control.
There is nothing sentimental in this policy, as some authors claim. On the contrary, caring for the rights and needs of the people living in the occupied territories points directly to the legitimacy and fairness of Georgia’s claims to territorial integrity. Therefore, the outcome of Georgia’s Abkhazian or Ossetian policy should be considered in this context.
Certain groups of the society are disappointed over the 25-year unsuccessful attempts to “get back Abkhazia.” However, as Giorgi Kanashvili rightly noted in his article, Georgia’s policy with regard to Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia over the past years has not been consistent. Reconciliatory rhetoric has often been changed to militarist posturing; the reconciliation policy – to violent actions.
There has been no systematic assessment of the causes of the conflicts; mistakes, violations or concerns of the parties have not been sufficiently accounted for. This is extremely important for restoring the confidence between the parties split by conflicts. This is why the argument that “nothing has worked” is superficial.
In addition, we should not forget that the Georgian, Abkhaz and Ossetian communities were torn apart by bloody wars and massive human rights violations. Collective fear towards each other remains strong. This fear, which might be considered as totally unfounded by one party, is nonetheless a reality for the other. It determines their attitudes and actions.
Consequently, the Georgian authorities and the civil society should work to reduce these fears and to change stereotypical attitudes of all sides. This will prepare the ground and public opinion for the compromise and, therefore, for sustainable peace.
The healthcare program carries very positive effects in this respect. Patients and their accompanying persons get to know Georgia and Georgians anew, visit various cities of Georgia, re-establish ties with their Georgian relatives, friends and neighbors, something that was probably unthinkable 10 years ago. Otherwise, why would the de facto authorities prevent people from travelling to Tbilisi-controlled territory? Or why would the Russian Federation create an alternative insurance program for Abkhazians?
We must also remember that “the Abkhaz” or “the Ossetians” are not one single person, acting and deciding unilaterally. Positions, interests, needs and opportunities of various groups should be taken into account. Oftentimes, the position, interests, need and opportunities of de facto ministers vary significantly from those of an unemployed person in Ochamchire, an owner of a store in Gagra or a teacher in Gali district.
The Georgian authorities should talk not only to the de facto representatives at the Geneva International Discussions, but also their own citizens from Sukhumi, Gagra, Ochamchire, Tskhinvali, etc. The Georgian space, be it healthcare, education, science, business, trade, tourism or other, should become relevant precisely for those citizens.
To summarize, it is the obligation and not the goodwill of the Government of Georgia to protect the rights of all of its citizens - of IDPs, of people living in the villages near the dividing line, of residents of Gali and Akhalgori districts, as well as of ethnic Abkhaz and Ossetians. We must ensure equal opportunities for them to enjoy the programs offered by the state, because the Abkhaz and the Ossetians are citizens of our country just like the rest of us.
The Public Defender has argued in detail in many of his reports, that the Georgian authorities must further expand the existing state programs and facilitate easy access to them, avoiding bureaucratic and formal barriers for the residents of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia. These efforts should be made not because we want to win the hearts and minds of the Abkhaz and the Ossetians, but because the Georgian government has the obligation towards the people living in the occupied territories.