Georgia

Georgia: Forgotten people - Internally displaced from Abkhazia

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Why are they forgotten?
An estimated 300,000 people were displaced as a result of Georgia's wars against two separatist military campaigns, one in the Black Sea region of Abkhazia in the northwest and the other in northeast region of South Ossetia. The war over Abkhazian autonomy between 1992 and 1994 led to the displacement of approximately 240,000 people, mainly ethnic Georgians. More than 10 years after the cessation of armed conflict, the majority of the displaced remain trapped. Although a limited number of displaced populations near the border were able to return to home, the political stalemate between the de facto government of Abkhazia and Georgia has kept the majority of the displaced in a state of constant limbo.

For years, resolving the issue of internal displaced persons (IDPs) was held hostage to the territorial disputes between Abkhazian and Georgian officials. For the Georgian government, the "IDP question" was inextricably tied to Georgia's "territorial integrity;" regaining Abkhazia would mean return for the displaced. Both authorities continue to depend on the international community to find a solution.

With the end of armed conflict in the early 1990s, the international community began relief efforts. A shift in assistance occurred during the mid to late-1990s, when international donors began focusing on development programs. However, lack of humanitarian assistance remains a concern for displaced people. Unable to return home, many are left in destitute conditions in the urban centers of Georgia. Living below Georgia's subsistence level without adequate food, access to health services, and shelter, the majority of IDPs in Georgia are among the poorest and most vulnerable.

Despite a rhetorical commitment during the Rose Revolution to resolving the displacement issues, the government of Georgia neglects the displaced because its priority is economic development pending an overall political resolution of the status of the Abkhazia region. For international donor governments, the displaced are invisible. Their needs do not rise to the level of other displaced persons, and the absence of on-going armed conflict makes the situation relatively easy to ignore.

Historical Background

Civil unrest and internal wars erupted throughout the Soviet Republics during the break-up of the Soviet Union. In 1991, the southern Caucasus nation of Georgia was thrown into two separatist wars that caused massive displacement in the Black Sea region of Abkhazia and in South Ossetia in northeast Georgia.

As in many separatist wars throughout the world, ethno-political conflict became a significant contributor to internal displacement. During the Abkhazian separatist war, ethnicity became the vehicle for power and a weapon for the removal of entire groups of people.

In the Soviet Union, conflict fueled by identity politics had its roots in the imperial national-building project. Similar to European colonial ambitions in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, Imperial Russia brought its nationalization project to the Caucasus. Conquest of the Caucasus brought about policies of Russification, in which aspects of Russian national identity, such as language, religion, and customs, were imposed on the conquered people as the superior national identity. Rather than forging a unified Russian national identity, however, existing boundaries became solidified, further fueling indigenous consciousness throughout the Caucasus. This has been witnessed in several republics that later became independent nations.

These processes intensified through the Soviet policy of population relocation where various ethnic groups in the Caucasus were forcibly relocated in the effort to suppress indigenous nationalism. For example, Ossetians were strategically relocated to two areas regarded by Soviet Union as most rebellious: Muslin Ingushetia, bordering Chechnya, and in northern Georgia. In the Abkhazian region, Russians and Armenians were resettled among the Greeks, Georgians, ethnic Abkhazians, and others who were earlier settlers during the Ottoman Empire. In the same manner, Russians were resettled throughout the Soviet Republics in the attempts to Russify the local population.

The political and economic favoring of one group over another at different points in history helped to crystallize differences. Russia's attempt to maintain power produced competition for scarce resources and group rivalries over the region. In the Abkhazian region, as in other Soviet Republics, Soviet policies contributed to the tension between the various ethnic groups. When an ethnic group was rising to a certain level of power and influence over their population, Russia would pump economic and social benefits to another group. In the mid-1930s, Russia's farm collectives attracted more central Georgians to the Abkhazian region, creating competition for labor among indigenous Georgians as well as other ethnic groups within Abkhazia. As the Georgian population began to grow within Abkhazia and Soviet power tightened over the region, ethnic politics intensified.

At the same time, in an effort to reject Russia's cultural and political domination, a nationalist campaign for independence was underway throughout Georgia and the other nations in the Caucasus. In Abkhazia, this drive for national Georgian unity was perceived by many other ethnic groups as a drive to Georgianize the region. In effect it created the fear of cultural absorption among non-Georgian groups, particularly ethnic Abkhazians. While they had previously rejected Russification, ethnic Abkhazians preferred unification with Russia over identification with the Georgian nation. This resulted in the emergence of competing forms of nationalism and power between Abkhazians and ethnic Georgians.

In 1992, Abkhaz separatists and Georgian national army began a war that lasted two years, with sporadic violence continuing until 1999, displacing all ethnic groups within Abkhazia. Both militaries were responsible for targeting the other's ethnic population by burning villages and destroying buildings and farm land. According to the Soviet government census of 1989, the pre-war population in Abkhazia was 525,000, 45% of which were classified as ethnic Georgians and 18% classified as ethnic Abkhazians. Post-war Abkhazia is 80-90% ethnic Abkhazian with the rest comprised of a mixed Abkhaz-Georgian population and some 30,000 Georgians on the border who return for harvesting during times of security.

While the numbers of displaced people is controversial and disputed by both sides, some conclusions have been reached. The largest number of displaced were ethnic Georgians. In addition, between 1992 and 1993 approximately 75,000 Russians and 75,000 Armenians fled to Russia, while close to15,000 Greeks returned to Greece after centuries in Abkhazia. Ethnic Abkhazians also became internally displaced during the prolonged conflict.

Humanitarian conditions

Georgia continues to face enormous political and economic consequences since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Since the end of civil war in the mid-1990s, Georgia received relief assistance as well as aid for development programs. While the shift from relief aid to development was needed in Georgia, purely humanitarian aid is still greatly needed for the most vulnerable populations.

Georgia's high unemployment rate has contributed to the high level of poverty, with 54% of the population below the poverty line. Conditions for internally displaced people are more critical in urban areas. Overall, the unresolved political situation with Abkhazia is creating a volatile situation for the displaced and for Georgia as a whole. The longer the political stand-off between Abkhazia and Georgia persists, the more humanitarian assistance will be needed for the internally displaced.

In addition, security remains a great concern in the Gali district of Abkhazia, where approximately 60,000 IDPs have spontaneously returned to farm their lands. At least half of the returnee population self-resettled in permanent locations, while another half return seasonally only for farming purposes. Humanitarian assistance and the building of infrastructure have been limited due to sporadic insecurity. However, it remains crucial that humanitarian assistance reach as many people as possible. It is important to underscore that tensions between returnees and ethnic Abkhazians will ease as international donors show financial support for rehabilitation programs and community-based projects.

The privatization of major hotels in Georgia, spearheaded by the president of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, had a two-pronged goal: to increase economic prosperity for Georgia by attracting international business and to fulfill the national IDP housing law by providing permanent homes for IDP families from Abkhazia. In practice, however, the national IDP law, which required the State to provide housing for all IDPs, has not been implemented.

On Rustaveli Street, rows of theaters and restaurants line the heart of Tbilisi's fashionable district. The once glamorous Iveria Hotel now stands in the center of this district as a visible reminder of the Abkhaz war and the displaced that were housed there for over 14 years. Through President Saakashvili's privatization act, the hotel was sold and IDPs were given approximately $7,000 per hotel room. A number of problems arose, however. First, most of the hotel rooms were not shared by one family, but several families. Therefore, the money had to be divided among two or more families sharing one hotel room. To complicate matters, IDPs were left on their own to find housing after the sale. In the capital city of Tbilisi, where 40 % of IDPs reside, finding an apartment to rent or buy has become increasingly difficult with soaring housing costs. As a result, many IDP families have to live in smaller rundown hotels or cooperatives, often without electricity and running water. Despite the countless resolutions passed in the Cabinet of Ministers for the economic and political protection of IDPs, efforts to enforce their civil rights have been abandoned by the Georgian government and ignored by the international community.

Therefore, Refugees International recommends that:

- The Government of Georgia and the de-facto Abkhazian officials continue their dialogue towards reaching a political settlement, a precondition for finding a solution for the displaced population.

- The Government of Georgia implement established IDP laws regarding housing and other issues, and make a greater effort to end mismanagement and corruption of IDP funds.

- The European Union get involved in creating conditions for dialogue between the Georgian government and Abkhazia in order to find longer-term solutions for the displaced population.

- Donors pay attention to the extreme poverty of vulnerable groups by providing humanitarian relief in addition to development aid.

- Donors support the implementation of relief assistance and rehabilitation programs among returnee populations in the Gali region.

Yodit Fitigu is a McCall-Pierpaoli Fellow with Refugees International.

Contact: Yodit Fitigu
ri@refugeesinternational.org or 202-828-0110