The New York based human rights organisation Human Rights Watch recently published a report on the situation in Gali, a district in breakaway Abkhazia which has a mostly Georgian population. The population of the Gali region was largely displaced as a result of the 1992-1993 war in Abkhazia, although most have spontaneously returned since, with the current population numbering between 40-47 000 according to estimates made by the organisation. Among the main issues discussed in the report are the alleged violations of the rights of the Georgian population of the territory at the hands of the de facto Abkhazian authorities, including violations of the right to free movement, right to citizenship and Georgian-language schooling.
The report does not differ substantially from previous reports written by various rights organisations about the Gali region in recent years, which, in my view, has received disproportionate attention compared to other conflict areas and minority populated areas (such as for example the Armenian populated Javakheti or the Azerbaijani populated Kvemo-Kartli region) within the internationally recognised borders of Georgia. The report in general is also symptomatic of the skewed viewpoint of the international community on this and a multitude of other minority related issues in Georgia and its breakaway republics, which I will deal with in further detail below.
Firstly, the HRW report fails to mention that most of the Georgian inhabitants of the Gali region are actually ethnic Mingrelians, who belong to a distinct ethnic group with their own language and culture. The Mingrelian language, despite having about 300 000 – 500 000 speakers concentrated mostly in western Georgia, has no official status, and is not taught in schools in Georgia. In fact, the official Georgian government position is that the Mingrelians are an ethnic sub-group of Georgians speaking a Georgian dialect, and has therefore declined to grant Mingrelian status as a regional or minority language.
Georgia even refuses to sign the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, which is part of it commitments as a member of the Council of Europe. It is quite peculiar that HRW considers Georgian-language instruction to Mingrelians in Abkhazia to merit more attention than the status of Mingrelian in Georgia, a language which is under pressure, and which without some form of official recognition and support will probably become extinct in the course of a few generations, along with much of the Mingrelian cultural heritage.
Secondly, the two main problems in Gali, which the HRW report chooses not to deal with in much detail, are poverty and organised crime. Gali is a mostly agricultural region where the economy largely depends on cultivation of cash crops such as nuts and tangerines and on subsistence farming. Especially the cash crops are subject to various criminal groups which control the sale and distribution, and which operate on both sides of the de facto border. There are also periodic low level clashes and incidents such as bombings, kidnappings and disappearances in Gali which might either be related to organised crime or aspects of the continuing Abkhazian-Georgian conflict.
In the last couple of decades there have been numerous infiltrations of Georgian supported guerrilla groups across the border, including the now defunct “White Legion” and “Forest Brethren”, and currently also suspected elements of the Georgian security services. While the HRW does mention that the clashes in 1998 which led to a renewed wave of fighting and displacement from the region in part resulted from the actions of of Georgian paramilitaries, there is little discussion of these or other similar events in the report. Instead, the HRW chooses to criticise the de facto Abkhazian authorities for limiting the number of crossings over the de facto border with Georgia, ostensibly for security reasons.
The HRW argues in its report that the decision of the de facto Abkhazian authorities to restrict crossings of the de facto border to a single crossing point amounts to an unacceptable restriction on the right to movement of the Gali population, but again declines to mention that Georgia, on its part, currently conducts a full blown blockade of Abkhazia, designed to restrict all political, economic, educational and even social interaction of citizens of the breakaway republic with the outside world. The Georgian Law on “Occupied Territories”, signed into effect by the Georgian parliament in October 2008 ensures that the only legal crossing point into Abkhazia is across the river Inguri at the de facto border between Abkhazia and Western Georgia, and that crossing into Abkhazia from any other border is considered illegal and subject to either a fine of several thousand USD or up to four years in jail.
So far, several violators of this law, mostly of Russian and Armenian origin have been sentenced, illustrating the arbitrary and discriminatory application of this law in practice. The above mentioned law has also been subject to significant criticism from the Venice Commission, especially since it threatens to limit the activities of NGOs and humanitarian organisations in Abkhazia which are not explicitly approved by the Georgian authorities. Since January 2010 the “Georgian state strategy on Occupied Territories”, which was presented by the Georgian authorities in western capitals as a confidence building measure, appears to further curtail the scope for direct international engagement with Abkhazia.
Furthermore, the HRW report also comments on the problems encountered by the Gali population when it comes to obtaining passports and citizenship in de facto Abkhazia. In particular, the policy of the Abkhazian authorities regarding dual citizenship ensures that only dual Abkhazian-Russian citizenship is considered legal, meaning – in theory at least – that Georgians/Mingrelians living in Gali would have to renounce their Georgian citizenship in order to obtain an Abkhazian one. Picking one or the other would either cut them off from receiving benefits from the Georgian government, or from exercising their civil rights in de facto Abkhazia. However, the extent of this problem seems in reality to be somewhat exaggerated.
Since there are no computerised records of citizenship available to the de facto Abkhazian authorities, and Abkhazian and Georgian authorities do not exchange citizenship records at any rate, there would be no practical way for the Abkhazian authorities to verify if the population of Gali retained Georgian citizenship or not. Evidence from my own fieldwork in Abkhazia suggests that dual, or indeed multiple citizenship is in fact not uncommon among either Georgians or other nationalities living in Abkhazia, and that various informal coping strategies are also utilised to deal with the problem.
Lastly, the suggestion by HRW that the population of Gali might leave permanently as a result of the lack of Georgian-language schooling and other problems encountered in Abkhazia is somewhat of a red herring, since a considerable part of the population of the region are actually not permanently resident there, but live in the neighbouring Samegrelo district in Georgia and commute back and forth on a seasonal basis to harvest crops or the visit their families or graves of relatives. It is also questionable how HRW supposes that more Georgians/Mingrelians could return to Gali or other parts of Abkhazia, when the organisation itself acknowledges that the Abkhazian authorities have limited resources to provide for even the current population.
The increased return of refugees to Abkhazia which HRW advocates would also have to be premised on the solution of a multitude of other problems, including the settling of property rights, provision of housing and security of the returnees – not to mention a resolution to the disputed status of both the Gali region and Abkhazia proper – neither of which the report discusses in any detail. In order not to create an unmanageable situation for the returnees – or increase the potential for renewed conflict – it is imperative that a solution to the above mentioned problems be found first. Sadly, a realistic and thorough analysis of these problems is not likely to be forthcoming from HRW.
Richard Berge holds a BA in Politics and Georgian language from the School of Oriental and African Studies at University of London, and a MA in Politics, Security and Integration from the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at UCL. He has worked for the Norwegian Embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan in 2009 and the European Centre for Minority Issues in Tbilisi, Georgia in 2010, focusing on human rights, freedom of information and minority rights in both countries. He is currently looking to publish his MA thesis on the political situation of the Armenian minority in Abkhazia.