They say that if you build bridges, rather than walls, you will make a friend. It is in that spirit that I came to London last week to explain how Georgia proposes to reach out to our compatriots in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region.
Both territories were on the frontline of the war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008. Russia invaded and still occupies both territories with thousands of troops. People on all sides were forced to flee, and now large numbers of the displaced live in temporary housing, particularly on the Georgian side. Walls now effectively exist between the communities. I am pleased to report that nearly all of the international community, with the notable exceptions of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Hamas and Hezbollah in Palestine, strongly support the territorial integrity of Georgia with full autonomy for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The question is how to make this happen.
The President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, believes that hearts and minds must be won over. After the break-up of the Soviet Union not enough attention was paid to the understandable sensitivities of the peoples of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Any solution must be based on full respect for the autonomy, culture and history of all peoples.
As Reintegration Minister I am part of a Government that has been liaising with all parties to find a way forward. The cornerstone of the plan we have developed is to remove divisions and facilitate co-operation between the occupied territories and the rest of Georgia. I want to see greater economic co-operation, so that living standards can improve for all.
Areas close to the dividing line have suffered too long from insecurity and require special assistance. The plan includes proposals for ‘special economic zones’, which would straddle the dividing line, and bring in new investment and jobs. The primary focus will be the agricultural sector. I want to see legal hurdles cleared to allow the sale of products from Abkhazia and South Ossetia to international markets. Better infrastructure, especially transport links, are crucial. The plan includes provision to rehabilitate roads between both communities and the rest of Georgia and to allow the reestablishment of bus connections. Investment is needed to provide for new schools, hospitals and sporting facilities. Any solution must see improved access to healthcare, in particular new medical programmes for the peoples of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to improve vaccination, maternity and childcare services, and prevention and treatment of tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and drug abuse. In education, I propose a focus on new textbooks in the Abkhazian and Ossetian languages. Greater protection for the cultural heritage and identity of both peoples is vital. It is equally important that we put in place stronger protection for the environment, so that future generations can enjoy some of the most beautiful landscapes in all of Georgia.
From conversations I have had, I know the leaderships of both territories have found the annexation of their lands by Russia stifling, to say the least. Clearly there were frustrations with the Georgian authorities in the past, but they are minor compared with dealings with faraway rulers in Moscow, not known for their listening skills or cultural sensitivity. Currently, Russian authorities are violating the commitments they made after the invasion to allow EU monitors and others to inspect developments within both territories. Thousands of people remain displaced and families are living apart, dreaming of the day they will return to their homes. Economic reconstruction is on hold. The environment is being pillaged, particularly the coastline and rivers of Abkhazia, where thousands of tons of gravel are being removed for the construction of the Sochi Winter Olympics, threatening erosion for decades to come. There must be a better way.
The West, particularly the EU, has an important role to play in finding a solution in our region. There is no concealing the fact that Russia calls the shots in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. No solution can be arrived at unless the Russians engage, and it would be helpful if EU member states encouraged this. My proposals should leave no-one in any doubt that Georgia is making the progressive case for greater co-operation, coupled with measures to protect the autonomy and cultural diversity of both territories. I am grateful for the consistent support I have had from EU capitals for Georgia’s territorial integrity. I know that re-integration brings responsibilities. I am aware that I have a great deal of work to do to convince the peoples of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that their future is brighter as part of Georgia. But I am determined to work day and night to achieve a lasting peace in the Caucasus built on mutual respect and greater dialogue.