A war for hearts and minds: how Georgian civil society is putting Abkhazia and South Ossetia back on the agenda

Open Democracy 

By Tetiana Kozak

There are no longer any military clashes along the demarcation lines between Georgia and Abkhazia and South Ossetia – there are now more or less established processes for crossing them, although dozens of people are arrested on them every year. Georgia’s internal problems have relegated these conflicts to the back burner. The Abkhazian issue is now 25 years old; the South Ossetian – 10 years. But when Abkhazian border guards shot and killed Giga Otkhozoriya, a citizen of Georgia, at the Khurcha-Nabakevi checkpoint in May 2016, the incident opened old wounds.

According to eyewitnesses, an argument developed between the 30-year old refugee from Abkhazia and the border patrol. As a result, a guard started chasing Otkhozoriya and started shooting at him by the time he was on the Georgian-controlled side of the border. The guard’s name is known, but for two years now the Georgian government has been unable to negotiate the handover of Rashid Kandji-Ogly, despite the issue having been frequently discussed in Gali, on the Abkhazian side of the unrecognised border, and during discussions in Geneva. Thus, Kandji-Ogly was eventually tried in Georgia in absentia and condemned to 14 years in prison. The Georgian authorities have also issued an international arrest warrant through Interpol. The Abkhazian de facto government initially claimed that Kandji-Ogly was being held under house arrest, but the case against him was closed in April 2017.

A similar tragedy took place two years later, but in another breakaway republic. In February 2018, police in the border district of Akhalgori in South Ossetia (where the district is known as Leningor) arrested Archil Tatunashvili, a Georgian citizen, for spying. He was taken to Tskhinvali (Tskhinval in South Ossetia), and a day later the authorities announced that he had died in custody. The dead man’s body was not immediately released to the Georgian authorities, and the cause of his death has never been established. The South Ossetians claim that he died of acute heart failure, but the Georgians claimed that he had been tortured and brought an in absentia charge against two South Ossetian police officers.

In amidst these tragedies, civil society groups are trying to put Georgia’s relationship with South Ossetia and Abkhazia at the top of the agenda.

Citizen patrols

Several times a week, a dozen activists from the Georgian Strength in Unity movement drive along the country’s main motorway, displaying photos of Tatunashvili and Otkhozoriya. At the point in the road where the demarcation line with South Ossetia is just 400 metres away, they line up along the hard shoulder and unfurl Georgian flags and posters reading, “I remember August 2008” and “Russian Occupiers”, while trucks and cars honk their horns in support.

After last July, when South Ossetian border guards once again moved the demarcation line in the village of Berusheti in the Gori district, taking about 10 hectares away from the local residents and leaving part of the Baku-Supsa oil pipeline on the South Ossetian side, Georgian activists decided to start monitoring the situation along the whole border.

The de facto authorities in Tskhinvali denied seizing the land, insisting that the border signs had been installed according to the official map and that they had notified the Georgians and the OSCE about it in advance.

“The patrols will be constant – this isn’t a one-off or one-week action”, David Katsarava, a well known sportsman who heads both Georgia’s National Rafting Federation and the Strength in Unity initiative said at the time. “The aim is to find Russian border guards and groups of engineers before something happens, so we can inform the international public”. As for concerns voiced in Tskhinvali about possible “acts of provocation” on the border, the movement promised that all actions would be agreed with the Interior Ministry.

The activists have now encountered an extra problem: the regular arrests of Georgian citizens living in the area of the demarcation line. This April, for example, Strength in Unity organised a blockade of Russian trucks and cars with Russian number plates after a local resident, 65-year-old Akakii Misireli was detained in the village of Kere, on the border with South Ossetia. Misireli was handed back to the Georgian police after paying a fine.

“People in border villages are just scared: they feel like they’re all alone,” Ana Sino, a student and member of Strength in Unity tells me. “‘We’re the little people: the journalists come and go but we have to live here’ – that’s what they think. We want to show and tell them that they are not alone. We come here from Tbilisi every day and talk to them.”

In Tbilisi, activists have also set up an “anti-occupation taxi” where customers, as well as being taken to wherever they want to go, are told about the August 2008 war. The car is also covered in barbed wire stickers, symbolising the breakaway territories, and passengers can watch videos showing the armed conflict of 2008 and speeches by Vladimir Putin.

“The Russian threats shown on the videos haven’t gone away,” says Lasha Berulava, an activist and journalist.

“We want to bring the subject of occupation back into the headlines,” says Ana, “this is a war for hearts and minds.”

Activists feel that in this war, the Georgian authorities are playing into the hands of the Russian government, parroting its propaganda slogans.

“Our government doesn’t want to provide the public with information,” Ana tells me. “They don’t want to annoy Russia. ‘We’re just a small country,’ they say. And they don’t want to frighten the public. But people need information.”

Despite the supposed “normalisation of relations with Russia” announced by the ruling Georgian Dream Party, there has been no breakthrough in the rapprochement between the two countries, and diplomatic relations have still not been re-established. Georgia’s Law on Occupied Territories describes Russia as a country engaged in military occupation, and Russia’s calls to repeal the law are so far unsuccessful.

Ordinary Georgian citizens aren’t particularly enthusiastic about the idea of rapprochement with Russia, as is clear from recent research by theInternational Republican Institute (IRI). In 2012, when Georgian Dream came to power, the idea of a dialogue with Russia had the fully support of 83% of the population and partial support by 11%, but this year, full support had dropped to 46% and disapproval had risen to 12%. The number of respondents who didn’t know if they supported dialogue had also increased in number, to 30% of the population.

Let’s talk

Georgian civil society, as well as several politicians, are worried about Russian propaganda being spread through media and social networks. In 2016, for example, the Georgian government approved a broadcast license for Russian international channel NTV-PLUS to operate in the country. Two years on, though, the licence was revoked after protests from opposition and civil society campaigners.

In Zugdidi, on the Georgian border with Abkhazia, people feel the increase in Russian propaganda very keenly. “We have Russian TV channels, and even my mother watches them,” cries Maya Pipiya, a journalist and presenter at the Atinati radio station, which promotes peace in the Zugdidi and Abkhazia. “The propaganda is directed at convincing us that Russia is our guarantor of security, although I can barely remember any stage when even good relations with Russia brought us any notable successes.”

On Atinati, Maya presents a Russian-language radio programme called “Points of Contact”, in which she talks about areas for concern for people on both sides of the demarcation lines. For example, farming problems – both Zugdidi and Gali depend on agriculture. The programme doesn’t cover hard politics, but engages with social issues and talks about general cultural contexts. The station also works with journalists from Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia, who regularly send Pipiya programmes. There are frequent disagreements over language – it’s not easy to find ways to talk about things in a way that is acceptable to listeners on both sides of the demarcation line.

Maya has been involved in dialogue issues for a long time. Her first attempt to find common ground took place in 2009, when she created a programme called “Let’s Talk”.

“I wanted to know about the rising generation – how they think, how they see us. And it turns out that we can talk to one another,” says Maya, who is herself a refugee from Sukhumi. “The more time that passes, the less sensitive the new generation is about the conflict.”

Before 2008, Zugdidi was just a small town, but now it has the highest number of immigrants after Tbilisi. Many of them still have no home of their own and are still living in collective accommodation built by the state. At the market, there’s brisk trade between Abkhaz and the locals.

Anna Kochua provides aid to both refugees and other vulnerable groups. “I’m still as close to it all as I was in the first days of the war. I’m not a refugee myself, but I find it difficult to see how displaced people live. Our country has got a lot of things wrong, but Georgia wasn’t a proper country then. During the fighting, the Georgian government was in the hands of bandits,” says Kochua, who was actively involved in Georgian-Abkhazian dialogue in her student years.

“The Abkhaz who were students back then are now responsible for decision-making in Abkhazia: they work in various ministries and there are ambassadors and people taking part the Geneva talks among them. They are the younger generation – they speak European languages and can express their views very easily and convincingly. I am proud of them and value them: they are people you can talk to, sit down at a table with. But I’d rather not have Russia involved. We have such a lot in common as it is, without Russia,” says Anna.

“But unfortunately, Russia will always be there – we couldn’t choose our geographic situation,” she adds.

Giga Otkhozoriya, who was killed at the Khurcha checkpoint in May 2016, was a classmate of Anna’s at school.

Bedbugs, horses and people

“Both here and there – they’re all business people, not a government,” our taxi driver David complains as he drives us along the demarcation line with Abkhazia. David is also a refugee, from the Gali area, and now lives in Zugdidi. His family didn’t manage to get state housing – you need connections to get a flat quickly, he says. He spent 15 years working as a labourer on building sites in Moscow, but when he came back home, to his family, he got work as a taxi driver to make ends meet.

“But now there’s a bridge – (Eduard) Shevardnadze built it after the war,” David tells us, referring to Georgia’s second president. The bridge spans the Inguri River on the way to Pakhulani, the village where one of the checkpoints is between Abkhazia and the area under Georgian rule. “There used to be a pedestrian rope bridge – it was used by refugees. A lot of looting went on – people had gold and money in their pockets and they would take it. Our lot as well as the Abkhazians.

“I remember lots of good times, but you never forget the bad ones,” adds David, who also crossed that bridge.

David’s eldest daughter died in the war. There was no money for medicines – and no medicines either, for that matter. He now has just two sons, one aged 24, the other 19.

“My son is training as a professional soldier,” he tells us. “What can you do? Say there’s a war between Abkhazia and Georgia, anything could happen, a military man is better prepared. You need to know everything, if you want to go on living,” says the taxi driver.

We drive past a tea processing factory, in ruins since the 1990s. The economic situation was so bad then that it was taken down for its metal parts and building materials. There are hardly any tea plantations left in the region. They grow walnuts here now instead.

“There’s no work now,” says Tinatin Rogava, a young woman from the border village of Rukhi. “They planted nut trees instead of tea. But the nuts won’t grow, because of the beatles. We should have stuck with the tea. Life’s very hard.”

This is then second year that Tinatin’s family, her parents and brothers, who live in the neighbouring village of Rikhi, have had no harvest, income or work. Neither the Zugdidi nor the Gali district has been able to rid itself of the marble bug, an infestation of which wipes out the citrus and hazelnut harvests. The bug is becoming a problem on a national scale, discussed at Georgian-Abkhazian meetings in Gali.

And bugs are not the only issue discussed in Gali. A few months ago, one of the main talking points was the release of Archiko and Paata Rogava, father and son. In early 2017, 59-year-old Archiko and 25-year-old Paatа were detained by Russian border guards beside the Inguri River, where they were searching for their lost horse.

The horse, the reason for the ten-month detention of Paata and eight-month detention of his father, is hidden in the walnut grove beside the Rogavas’ house. Their plot is the last one before the border with Abkhazia. The only thing stopping the horse escaping is a wide stream, which it can easily cross in dry weather. But now the horse’s legs are hobbled and it tramps disgruntedly on the spot.

The men were accused of crossing the border illegally. But the Rogavas claimed that it was not they, but the guards, who crossed the border. Paata also told the court that he was beaten and had dogs set on him during the arrest. But the Abkhazian Security Service claimed that he had “physically insulted” a guard.

Sitting round the big table in their modest, but hospitable home, Archiko and Paata tell us about their imprisonment. They don’t speak Russian well, so Tinatin helps with the interpreting.

“We had very good relations with the prison staff,” says Archiko. “The guards were all Abhaz, so there were no problems with them. They believed us when we said we hadn’t crossed the border. But the Russians didn’t believe us. I met an Abkhazian guy who had fought in 2008. He didn’t say anything bad about us. Now people in Abkhazia are saying that the war was all the fault of Shevardnadze and Gorbachev.”

“Abkhazians can’t do anything when there is Russia over there,” Tinatin adds.

“If Putin doesn’t get out of Abkhazia, there’ll soon be a war, and Abkhazia will be on our side,” says her father.

To release her father and brother, Tinatin planned an action on the Inguri River bridge linking Abkhazia to the area ruled by Georgia. The Rogava family organised four protests – a chain of people closed the bridge to traffic and lay down on the roadway. At the last protest, Tinatin’s sister Daredjan was arrested for resisting a police officer by knocking his cap off. Daredjan didn’t have the money to pay the fine of 250 Lari, so she spent several days in detention.

“We did it all ourselves,” Tinatin says. “No one helps.” The men were released when the family paid a 100,000 rouble fine: all their friends and relatives helped collect the money.

“Because my father and brother are good people. Everybody knows and respects them. And they’re still the same,” she tells us.

“Now they are heroes!” I say.

“Well, I don’t know about that. I wouldn’t use the word ‘hero’. But fame hasn’t gone to their heads,” says Tinatin modestly.

Taking responsibility

The cafe-bar beside the Khurcha-Nabakevi checkpoint is empty. The road to Abkazia is blocked by a metal mesh fence, although the buildings on the other side are visible despite the mesh and thick vegetation.

Irina, who works in a café in the village centre, tells me that everything has been “calm and boring” since the Abkhaz side closed the checkpoint in March 2017. Another one further down the Inguri, between the villages of Orsantiya and Otobaya, was also closed at the same time.

These checkpoints used to be used by the residents of Abkhazian border villages. Children crossed them to go to school; adults to buy groceries and other essentials, as well as accessing medical services. Now they have to make a 10km detour via the Inguri Bridge for everything.

The closure of three out of four of the checkpoints on the demarcation line between Abkhazia and Georgia was one of the election promises made by Abkhazia’s president Raul Khajimba in 2014. Residents in the Gali district protested, but the Abkhazian government claimed that the protesters were people involved in “illegal business activities” and “smugglers”, and that the checkpoints had been closed at the request of the “overwhelming majority” of the population.

So hundreds of people – both Gali district residents and ethnic Georgians – are now forced to cross the border by illegal means. Many of them don’t have the right papers, including Abkhazian passports, as they don’t want to lose their Georgian citizenship. Others are refugees who still have houses and agricultural land on the Abkhazian side.

An elderly woman leaning on sticks struggles at a barbed wire barrier; a few men help her through, pick her up in their arms and run. A young lad rolls up his trousers, a girl climbs on his back and the two wade across the river. Men and women run, one by one, across an open space towards a strip of wood – the Abkhazian border guards send a rocket flare into the sky. These are all shots from “I Swam across the Inguri”, a documentary made by Anuna Bukiya about this unofficial to-ing and fro-ing across the demarcation line.

The filmmaker made this journey herself, from Georgia to Abkhazia: Bukiya wanted to go to Sukhumi to have a look at her house, which she was forced to leave at the age of four. She had a shock at the sight of her childhood home, she tells me – she was overcome by all sorts of emotions. And making the film was really important – an expression of her civil rights, a kind of activism.

“I wanted people from both sides to see what was actually going on,” says Anuna. She feels that people who have been involved in the peace process for so long, on both the Georgian and Abkhazian sides, have monopolised the right to information about the conflict and don’t talk about the real problems at the demarcation line.

The most difficult thing for Bukiya was to show her documentary on TV – she was worried about how it would be received, and what effect this would have on the people whose story it was.

“I realised that I needed to take responsibility for it. Otherwise things would just go on as they had done over the last 25 years,” she says. “Because nothing can get any worse than it has been and still is. The worst thing is just waiting for something unfathomable to happen, be it war or peace.”

25 years of being apart

“The fact that Georgian and Abkhaz society has been living apart for too long is a very big problem,” Olesya Vartanyan, an analyst at the International Crisis Group’s Tbilisi office tells me. In 2008, Vartanyan covered the conflict from Tskhinvali, the capital of the breakaway Republic of South Ossetia, and her reports were published by the international press. But then she dropped journalism for peacemaking. “I’m more comfortable with myself in this role,” she says. “I can do something to change things.”.

According to Vartanyan, the subject of the unrecognised territories is no longer a priority for Georgia. It only makes the headlines when a serious incident occurs, such as the killings of Giga Otkhozoriya and Archil Tatunashvili. And peacemaking efforts on the Georgian side are not always welcome in Abkhazia: it was not particularly happy, for example, when in spring 2017 the EU lifted visa formalities for Georgian citizens travelling to Europe.

“This is definitely a new attempt by Tbilisi to entice our citizens into Georgia,” announced the Abkhazian government at the time, “and like all previous attempts it is doomed to failure. If Georgia’s leaders are genuinely concerned about Abkhazian citizens’ freedom of movement, they should abandon their policy of isolating our citizens, who are denied entry to EU countries thanks to Tbilisi’s stance.”

“In Tbilisi, there’s not always an idea of what is actually going on in the breakaway regions,” says Olesya Vartanyan. “For example, how much they need what is being offered here, and whether this is creating excuses that might be used by local nationalists to, for instance, close the border or put pressure on the people who are beginning to cooperate with the Georgian side.” This, Vartanyan considers, is the fundamental issue in relations between Georgia and the breakaway territories.

“These communities live their separate lives, and have no contact with one another,” is Vartanyan’s analysis of the situation. “After 25 years, that’s where we are.”

A recent International Crisis Group report states that although no political compromise is in sight, informal trade between Georgia and South Ossetia and Abkhazia is growing. And discussion of mutually beneficial commerce “might open up long since blocked channels of communication” between the two sides.

In April, the then acting Georgian PM Giorgi Kvirikashvili announced a new initiative – “A Step towards a Better Future” – designed to improve the humanitarian and socio-economic situation of people in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region. The Tbilisi government declared that it wanted to reduce all procedures involving trade along the demarcation lines to a minimum, as well as opening education to people both within Georgia and outside its borders and giving them access to the benefits that Georgian citizens have received thanks to close relations with the EU.

In Sukhumi and Tskhinvali this peace initiative has been dismissed as a “PR offensive” and “a semblance of friendship”.

“The only step towards a better future would be for Georgia to recognise the independence of the Republic of Abkhazia and enter a real intergovernmental dialogue between our countries for the sake of stability and the prosperity of future generations,” says Abkhazia’s de facto Minister of Foreign Affairs Daur Kove. “There is no alternative to this process.”

Meanwhile, in the Georgian border village of Rukhi, the shopping centre and market built in 2016 for traders from Abkhazia both stand deserted.

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