Georgians from Abkhazia: beyond limbo

Many Georgians displaced by the Abkhazia war of 1992-93 now live in rudimentary centres around the country. They face great difficulties in building their lives. But a survey of their views and aspirations contains some surprises, says Magdalena Frichova Grono.
Magdalena Frichova Grono
25 May 2011

Many of the more than 200,000 ethnic Georgians who fled the Georgian-Abkhaz war of 1992-93 lived until recently, in Tbilisi’s city centre in ramshackle buildings used as makeshift refugee accommodation. But the Soviet-era hotels and other structures where these people found sanctuary are at the heart of plans by Georgia's government and its president, Mikheil Saakashvil, to modernise Tbilisi.

This urban renewal has forced the IDPs to relocate once more, often to join their compatriots in “centres of collective settlement” in Georgia's far-flung corners. Despite the government’s intent to address their problems, living conditions in such centres frequently remain dire, and many of the displaced people endure harsh conditions where they feel marginalised and disempowered.
Two NGOs - Conciliation Resources and the Caucasus Research Resource Centre - have recently conducted a survey of the lives and aspirations of people displaced from Abkhazia (categorised as internally displaced persons [IDPs]) who are accommodated in these collective centres. After nearly two decades since the war in Abkhazia, this is the first attempt to improve understanding of the IDPs’ predicament by assessing their perceptions of and attitudes to conflict, return and justice. The survey challenges a number of long-held stereotypes about the IDPs, and has important lessons for policy-makers. Here I consider just a few of the more interesting findings.

A life in shame
“Young people who live in a collective centre and happen to own a car will at times park it several blocks away, so people cannot associate them with the place. What integration can we talk about?” The words of Nino Kalandarishvili, a Georgian expert on IDPs, illustrate the shame many young displaced Georgians feel about their situation.

The survey shows that while a majority of these IDPs feel they are part of Georgian society, 27% say they feel discriminated against because of their status, and nearly as many answer inconclusively. Their lack of integration into Georgian society is an enduring problem. For a start, the Georgian authorities’ position is that all IDPs need to return, and resist integration - for to accept it might entail that once-integrated IDPs no longer wished to exercise their right of return to Abkhazia. In turn this would be inconsistent with, and undermine, the Georgian claim that Abkhazia remains part of a sovereign Georgia.  

True, the attitudes of the Georgian government attitudes to integration have softened somewhat since 2006 - and then even further after the August 2008 conflict with Russia, which resulted in a new wave of displacement from South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Yet much remains to be done. As few as 5% completely agree that the Georgian government takes their concerns seriously. A majority of surveyed IDPs are dissatisfied with their living conditions, and the lack of access to employment opportunities causes deep frustration (fewer than one in five report having paid work). There are frequent complaints about accommodation - often, several generations of a family live in a single room. As one woman explained to me: “The young folk are worst off; how do you expect them to set up families in front of their parents’ and grandparents’ eyes?”

It seems paradoxical then that there is a lot of faith in the government. Over two-thirds of respondents say they trust Mikheil Saakashvili, and IDPs’ trust in the various branches of power is on average 10%-30% higher than that reported by ordinary Georgian citizens in a comparable survey. Such a finding is often typical of minority groups - but it indicates that much could be achieved if the authorities were more willing to listen and be responsive to the IDPs’ own preferences.

The issue of return

The daily life of IDPs in the collective centres is split between struggling to survive and dreaming of return. The latter is an all-pervasive concern. Yet few think about what this would mean in practice, now that almost twenty years have passed since they left at the chaotic end of the 1992-93 war. Over these two decades, Georgian and Abkhaz societies have become even more separated by their mutual isolation and stark political differences, magnified by powerful propaganda-machines.

Georgians have embraced the west, whereas Abkhazians have been able to access the wider world almost exclusively via Russia and its media and culture. The resulting cultural and political dichotomies are startling, and perhaps especially clear to the visitor. Even the former common language, Russian, is no longer a lingua franca as fewer and fewer young Georgians speak it well.

In the Georgia-Abkhazia context, political debates about return are as deadlocked as those about Abkhazia’s final status. Tbilisi maintains that the Abkhaz resorted to ethnic cleansing, and insists on the return of all displaced Georgians to Abkhazia. Abkhaz reject that characterisation of what happened, and fear that widespread return of Georgian former residents might shift Abkhazia’s current delicate demographic balance back to the pre-war situation when Georgians were a majority of the population.
But behind these monolithic claims and mutual posturing, and in the context of the position in international law that all IDPs have an inalienable right to a safe and dignified return, there is a more nuanced reality. In particular, the question of whether all would really want to exercise that right and under what conditions, offers revealing answers.

The survey shows that nearly 90% would want to return only if Abkhazia is under Georgia’s control. Around 10% would consider returning if Abkhazia’s political status were defined outside of Georgia (be it in its current status; recognised by most of the world, excluding Georgia; or integrated into Russia). Among the issues IDPs cite as crucial preconditions of their return are whether  Abkhazia’s status is defined outside of Georgia, and whether there is security, Georgian-language education, and guarantees of Georgians’ rights in Abkhazia.
It is clear in this light that IDPs’ views about when Abkhazia might be “reintegrated” into Georgia are important. A quarter expect this to take place within the next decade; nearly one half say they do not know when it might be possible. Most IDPs appear to recognise that Abkhazia’s reintegration, and hence their return, are not realistic prospects in the near-to-medium-term.

Beyond the political deadlocks, there are three practical constraints. First, the narratives about return are often based on remembrances of what people have left behind; their old homes tend to be a cornerstone of their memories. Yet the survey indicates that some 75%-85% would be unable to go back to their original homes, were return to take place today: a half of these dwellings have been destroyed, another quarter are occupied by others. The fate of some is unknown.
Second, nearly a fifth of IDPs say they took part in fighting during the war (and 41% say their family members were involved in warfare). Abkhaz have long stressed they would be against permanent return of ex-combatants and, in some case, their families.

Third, inter-ethnic relations have been strained or broken as a result of the war and two decades of isolation. The IDPs express cautious optimism about their relationship with Abkhaz as a people, but only a minority consider that the latter are friendly in return.
None of these realities are part of current public and political discussions in Georgia. This is unfortunate, as a better understanding of IDP views could produce a more pragmatic understanding of future policy options.

The prospect of return may at present be theoretical, but such a debate would help prepare the ground for a time when it might be possible. It would also help narrow the gap between IDPs’ current reality and their dream of returning to their old homes. What this means in practice was explained to me by an activist called Liana, when she talked of the weighty responsibility of helping her children navigate the limbo of aspiring to a place they do not even recall. An open public debate would help the different generations of IDPs like Liana and her family.

The way ahead

Georgians displaced from Abkhazia have, unlike most of their compatriots, experienced directly the devastating impact of war with Abkhazia. The widespread assumption that they are belligerent is wrong. These IDPs are not overall a hawkish group: 59% reject the use of force as an instrument of conflict resolution (although a quarter do not exclude the use of force, mostly as a last resort). This is a crucial message for both the Georgian and Abkhaz sides.

IDPs are also very pragmatic about conflict resolution. The survey shows they generally think of the conflict today as driven by Russia or geopolitics. But most prioritise local-level solutions, such as recreating contacts between Georgians and Abkhaz, working towards reconciliation, and even restarting political dialogue between Tbilisi and Sukhumi. More support the last option - including signing an agreement on the non-use of force - with Abkhazia itself than with Moscow.

IDPs are a difficult interlocutor for Abkhaz. But as this survey indicates, they are potentially a strong resource for peacebuilding: they are attuned to the Georgian-Abkhaz dynamic and know it more deeply than to everyday Georgians. Their own experience is a lesson in the the costs of war and value of peace. If the Georgian government is committed to peace in the region, it needs both to understand better and to act on the legitimate demands of these displaced Georgians.

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