Georgian conflict exploitation concerns

News and Press Release
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Some observers suspect the authorities are taking advantage of people caught up in Georgia's wars.

By Natia Kuprashvili in Tbilisi and Davit Gaimsonia in Gori (CRS No. 525, 24-Dec-09)

Georgians displaced by the war between Russia and Georgia last year and those who choose to remain in areas outside of Tbilisi's control appear to be being exploited by the government, some analysts believe.

Some 26,000 Georgians fled South Ossetia last year after Russia repelled a Georgian attempt to regain control of the region, and many now live in a newly-built settlement called Tserovani.

Tserovani is right by the main road between Tbilisi and Gori, and it is a constant reminder of the human cost of the war since passers-by cannot help but notice the neat rows of identical houses.

"The international aid saved my family from death. I have somewhere to live. It might not be the house I dreamed of, but at least I am not outside," said Manana Pilashvili, who lives in Tserovani.

The settlement was built very quickly after the August war, and only now are human rights activists like Georgiy Vanyan, of the Caucasus Centre for Peace Initiatives, beginning to question the motives behind it.

"It is a real reservation, a ghetto, a village built not so as to help people, but to demonstrate their problems to others," he said as he looked at the rows of white houses with their red roofs.

According to the latest statistics, seven per cent of the Georgian population is made up of refugees, most of whom left Abkhazia and South Ossetia in wars in the early 1990s.

According to the ministry for refugees' affairs, 230,000 Georgians fled the two regions, and are referred to as the old wave of refugees to distinguish them from those displaced by last year's conflict.

Vanyan said that although the government had helped the recent refugees more than the first wave, compact settlements like Tserovani were built for political reasons.

"I know that there are many abandoned houses in Georgian villages. I think that rehabilitating them and settling refugees there would be a lot more effective, both for the development of agriculture, and for creating a good environment for these people," he said.

Koba Subeliani, minister for refugees' affairs, brushed aside such criticism, and said the construction of Tserovani for the new arrivals had been logical, since it simplified the distribution of humanitarian aid.

"Soon we will build fences and roads, we will plant trees, and it will not be a ghetto but a beautiful settlement. These people could not have survived winter in tents, and they received warm houses with gas and furniture and one-off financial assistance," he said.

People from the Akhalgori region of South Ossetia were among those offered homes in Tserovani, since their own houses are now outside of Tbilisi's control.

But some of the Alkhalgori residents say the Georgian authorities are putting pressure on them to leave their villages.

"Our family declined a cottage in Tserovani, because if we take it we will have to live there. I prefer to live in Akhalogori, even though the Ossetian police are there - because they don't disturb the population. In fact, the only pressure on us is from Georgia, " said Tamar Mearakishvili, an Alkhalgori resident.

Paata Zakhareishvili, a specialist in conflict resolution, said the Georgian authorities had the same attitude to Georgians living in Abkhazia, where the Gali region is almost entirely ethnic Georgian, as they do to Georgians living in South Ossetia.

"The Georgian authorities should do all they can to keep the Georgian population in the Gali region. The people who live there are heroes. And the authorities are forcing them to choose between leaving their homes and coming to territory under Georgian control, or staying there and being 'traitors'. [In fact,] closer relations between Georgians and Abkhaz depends on their presence in the Gali region," he said.

The ministry for refugees' affairs says it cannot encourage Georgians to remain in South Ossetia or Abkhazia since the government is not able to guarantee their security there. At the same time, Georgia insists at all talks that the refugees must be allowed to return home.

Natia Kuprashvili is a freelance journalist. Davit Gaimsonia is a journalist from the 24 hours newspaper.