Cars with Georgian license plates in Akhalgori, 2018. Photo: parliamentrso.org
Ten years after Moscow rolled its tanks into Georgia, formalizing its politico-military presence in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region, Tbilisi has yet to formulate a policy that would uphold at least minimal human rights standards in the occupied territories, let alone achieve complete de-occupation of the two regions.
Archil Tatunashvili’s death in Tskhinvali custody was telling on many accounts.
Not only was it a clear illustration of the brutal force that reigns in the region, or of the administrative malice that locals have to navigate through on everyday basis, it also stood as a stark reminder of the failure of Tbilisi’s anti-occupation policy.
The Georgian Dream government’s conciliatory rhetoric with Moscow, combined with its soft “hearts-and-minds” measures targeting the Abkhaz and the South Ossetians, has, indeed, yielded some positive results: physical security in and around the two regions has considerably improved, and exchanges of fire have become extremely rare.
Yet, this seemingly “convenient-for-all” status quo has come at a cost to sizable chunks of local populations – especially ethnic Georgians of Gali (Abkhazia) and Akhalgori (Tskhinvali Region), who account for roughly half of the two districts’ pre-conflict populations, and constitute approximately 19% and 7.4% of the regions’ total populations, respectively.
Their access to rights has dramatically worsened in recent years. Over the last three years, for instance, local authorities have successfully squeezed their mother tongue out the last remaining Georgian-language schools in Gali and Akhalgori, while simultaneously encroaching on their right to free movement, and making their right to legal residence conditional on their ethnic belonging. Gali Georgians were also disenfranchised in local politics through a targeted campaign.
And when they dared to speak against local regimes - they have been banned from coming back and threatened to be prosecuted formally and persecuted informally, as opera singer Giorgi Todua in Gali two months ago, or put under unofficial house arrest as civic activist Tamar Mearakishvili in Akhalgori last year.
Tbilisi has been no less indifferent to the two communities. They hardly ever feature in Prime Ministerial and Presidential “friendship” appeals to the Abkhaz and the South Ossetians; media and opposition politicians are not lavishing them with attention either.
The state-funded medical referral program is a case in point here; eight years after its introduction, the government has failed to find a way to extend the facilitated medical services scheme, which is normally available to ethnic Abkhaz and Ossetians, to the two regions’ ethnic Georgian residents.
This is not to say that Georgian officials are completely oblivious to their concerns. In private talks, they acknowledge the problem. “Our conversations with international partners start and end with Gali and Akhalgori,” said one senior official behind the closed doors. Some have gone as far as describing the situation as ethnic discrimination, “a modern-day apartheid.”
The fundamental problem in Tbilisi, however, is not that of an insufficient recognition, but that of ignoring ethnic Georgians when drafting the overall policy; hardly anyone in the government and the civil society bothers to think beyond the established clichés of “alarmization,” and “mobilization of the international community.”
Nor has anyone fundamentally questioned the country’s policy towards the two communities – best described as keeping them within the occupied regions at any cost whatsoever.
Although such policy has never been clearly articulated (Tbilisi does not officially recognize them as returnees, and still considers them as internally displaced), the policy has been cemented by the unholy alliance of the doves and the hawks.
The “peace-makers” maintain that ethnic Georgian communities in Akhalgori and in Gali, with their close economic and social ties with the rest of the country, could serve as a bridge to eventual Abkhaz-Georgian and South Ossetian-Georgian reconciliation. Hardline nationalists, on the other hand, say the two communities could serve as a bridgehead for reclaiming the whole region, shall such opportunity come up.
Residents of Gali and Akhalgori, on their part, have no choice but to agree with the arrangement, since the alternative to staying in their own houses – even in a hostile political environment – is leading a life as an internally displaced person in Georgia proper – which is precarious, but also stigmatizing.
Yet, despite the silent consensus that has turned ethnic Georgians in the two occupied provinces into politically invisible populations, its dramatic failures do capture attention and elicit calls for action. Serious human rights violations, including arbitrarily killings, continue to happen and continue to go unpunished, as in the cases of Giga Otkhozoria in 2016, and Archil Tatunashvili three weeks ago.
To keep pace with ongoing developments, that increasingly turn the two regions into entities annexed, rather than “just” occupied by Russia, Tbilisi needs to rethink its approach, policy, above all, by acknowledging that human rights come first and that it bears duty towards its nationals in assuring their constitutional rights.
Neither hypothetical reconciliation nor future reunification prospects justifies the government turning a blind eye to the suffering of locals. On the contrary, the officials have to demonstrate that they are doing all in their power so that the rights of the locals are properly recognized and upheld, regardless of their ethnic belonging and political loyalties.
For that, Georgian officials need to draw clear lines for Russians and their proxies, and when these lines are crossed, do everything at their disposal to seek redress, be it through international courts, through sanctions, and if needed, through evacuating those who wish to do so, or whose lives are in immediate danger, into safety, to Georgia proper.
Else, Tbilisi’s continuous pedaling of human rights violations in the two regions, without any practical steps of its own, risk turning its policy futile at best, and hypocritical at worst.