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Abkhazia:
between war and peace
Manana Gourgoulia and
Elena Imedashvili

 

 

Wars divide people and erect insurmountable barriers between them. In the following article, two journalists - one from Georgia and the other from Abkhazia - make an attempt to bridge the gap between the two communities. This is the first attempt of its kind since the outbreak of the conflict more than seven years ago.
"Neither war, nor peace": it is in these terms that many people describe the current situation in Abkhazia. The armed clashes that erupted more than seven years ago in the territory of post-Soviet Georgia have been replaced, for some years now, by a war of words; the confrontations take place nowadays around the negotiating table and in newspaper columns. Symbol of the gulf that now divides the two peoples is the ceasefire line along the River Inguri, established after the arrival in the conflict zone of Russian peacekeeping forces under the aegis of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

The spark that set alight the savage conflict pitting Georgians against Abkhaz was the decision of the Tbilisi authorities on 4 August 1992 to send troops under the command of the Georgian Council of State to the autonomous republic of Abkhazia. They justified the move on the grounds that they needed to protect rail communications. The fateful decision ignited a war between Georgia and Abkhazia which lasted nearly 14 months (from 14 August 1992 to 30 September 1993) and led to widespread suffering and the deaths of thousands of people. On 27 September 1993, Abkhaz forces took control of Sukhumi, triggering the massive exodus of Georgians living in Abkhazia.

According to official Georgian sources, some 3,000 members of the Georgian armed forces lost their lives in the war in Abkhazia, as did some 7,000 civilians of all origins (Georgian, Russian, Armenian, Abkhaz, etc.) According to Abkhaz statistics, the clashes left 5,000 dead among the soldiers and officers of the forces of Abkhazia and the northern Caucasus, of whom more than 3,500 were of Abkhaz origin. The war also forced 300,000 residents of the autonomous republic - more than 60 per cent of the population living in the republic before the war - to flee their homes to seek refuge in other regions of Georgia or abroad.

Stalemate

Since then, the parties have engaged in talks, more or less dynamic and fruitful, with the aid of intermediaries (Russia and the United Nations), to find a solution to the conflict. While the political leaders hurl insults and recriminations at each other - and even though the conflict is "frozen" - people in Abkhazia are still dying. Landmines, the deadly legacy of the past war, still claim civilian victims, and terrorist acts continue to be perpetrated on Abkhaz soil. The Sukhumi authorities point their fingers at "Georgian terrorist groups and subversive elements", while Tbilisi officials talk of "partisans" and armed groups beyond the control of the Georgian authorities. According to an Abkhaz source, 52 terrorist or subversive acts were committed in 1998 alone, and 58 in 1999.

Georgia is currently struggling to provide a means of subsistence to more than 200,000 people displaced from Abkhazia. Emerging as it is from a dire economic crisis brought on by the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the country has a budget that enables it to pay an allowance of a mere USD 7 a month to the displaced people.

Those living in Abkhazia are no better off. During the fighting, thousands of homes, industrial and agricultural installations and cultural monuments were looted, burned or destroyed. According to statistics gathered by a special governmental commission in Abkhazia, the economic losses suffered by the republic as a result of the war amount to USD 11.4 billion.

The summit of CIS heads of state in January 1996 imposed economic sanctions on Abkhazia, which have hampered the development of economic relations with the outside world. Abkhazia is thus reduced to relying essentially on its own resources. Abkhazia's national budget totalled 101 million roubles in 1999. The average monthly salary of civil servants and public service workers is around 230 roubles (around USD 10). Social security and retirement pensions are no more than USD 4 a month. The main source of income for many people is the family's own economic activity. During the citrus fruit season, you can see thousands of women heading for the Russian border with carts piled high with crates and sacks of tangerines, in the hope of selling their crop in Russia in exchange for some means of subsistence.

The peace negotiations, which have been dragging on for six years with only marginal success, have not found solutions acceptable to both parties on the two key issues: the return of the displaced people and a political settlement to the conflict.

The media's responsibility in times of conflict

Conflicts, especially those driven by nationalism, have a particular characteristic: they are self-perpetuating. Even if this means that the mechanisms of this process must be looked for within the conflict itself, there are a multitude of external factors which help to keep a conflict alive. The media, by diffusing information which reinforces the logic of war, can create a fertile breeding ground for this phenomenon. This being said, the press can also play a very different role, by opposing the logic of war with one of peace.

Numerous articles about Abkhazia have appeared in the Georgian press, which, because of their subjective nature, have only served to infuriate Abkhaz readers. Facts are distorted, although this can sometimes be explained by the absence of a normal exchange of information between Sukhumi and Tbilisi. The same, or as good as, can be said for the information on Georgia put out by the Abkhaz media, while keeping in mind that the situation in Abkhazia is not properly comparable with Georgia, which boasts hundreds of newspapers. In general, the Abkhaz press publishes mostly negative information on and superficial analyses of events in Georgia.

Georgian and Abkhaz journalists are now trying, as far as possible, to build cooperation. Contacts between journalists are hindered by restrictions on travel in the conflict zone. The only way for Georgian and Abkhaz journalists to communicate is by telephone, which functions only sporadically.

Despite all the obstacles, initiatives have begun in Sukhumi and Tbilisi to redress the lack of objective information between the two communities and to foster professional contacts. One project on the drawing board is the creation in the near future, under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of a non-governmental organization bringing together journalists from the Caucasus. The first task of this entity will be to enable the Abkhaz media to have access to e-mail and the Internet.
M.G. et E.I.


Differences of opinion

On innumerable occasions in the course of the talks between Georgia and Abkhazia, discussions have centred on the signature of two documents that would significantly advance the peace process: a "Peace Accord and Cessation of Armed Hostilities" and a "Protocol on the return of displaced persons and on the recovery of the Abkhaz economy". Yet to this day, Georgia refuses to sign these texts, claiming that they need refining and harmonizing.

For the record, the views of the leaders of the two parties on the future of Abkhazia remain diametrically opposed, as demonstrated by their various statements. According to the president of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze, "Sooner or later, the time will come when we will be able to restore brotherly relations between Georgians and Abkhaz (...) Abkhazia, as part of a unified Georgian state, will enjoy extensive rights, in accordance with international norms relating to autonomous state entities. Abkhazia will have its own parliament, its own constitution, its supreme court and law enforcement bodies (...) It will be essential to define the respective competencies of the central authority (Tbilisi) and the local authorities in Sukhumi. All controversial issues must be resolved on the basis of the Georgian Constitution."

Vladislav Ardzinba, president of Abkhazia, maintains that "Abkhazia demands that its relations with Georgia be as equals and will only participate in negotiations on equal terms (...) The Abkhaz authorities have no intention of entering into a debate with Georgia on the issue of Abkhazia's political status, all the more so since the Abkhaz people have already expressed their views on the matter in the referendum of 3 October 1999, and under no circumstances will it discuss the distribution of constitutional power between Abkhazia and Georgia (...) It is more a case of establishing neighbourly relations and economic cooperation between two republics."

In this conflict, each side has its own version of the truth. Tbilisi claims to be defending Georgia's territorial integrity; Sukhumi insists on independence for Abkhazia. Today, each party is accusing the other of genocide and ethnic cleansing and is appealing to international organizations for support. Both count on the restoration, sooner or later, of "justice founded on historical facts". However, the squabbling of politicians won't do anything to ease the plight of the ordinary people who have become the victims of this conflict.

Humanitarian response in Georgia

In Abkhazia, the ICRC focuses on providing protection, relief and medical assistance to the most vulnerable. In Georgia, it cares for the displaced in the western part as well as other categories of victims, notably the war-wounded and detainees. The ICRC has worked with the Georgian Red Cross Society since 1995, primarily in the field of tracing, promotion of humanitarian law and Red Cross principles, and emergency preparedness. ICRC food security programmes in Abkhazia have been delegated to Participating National Societies - the Finnish Red Cross (canteen programme) and Swedish Red Cross (home-care programme). To carry out these activities, the ICRC has deployed 38 expatriate delegates and 250 local staff. The annual budget is nearly 10 million US dollars.

The International Federation has one of the largest basic health-care programmes for internally displaced people in western Georgia. Its other activities include relief programmes for displaced people, home care for vulnerable pensioners, disaster preparedness and development of the Georgian Red Cross Society.

Manana Gourgoulia
Abkhazpress, Soukhoumi.

Elena Imedashvili
Black Sea Press, Tbilissi.




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