Contemporary Ethnic Cleansing - 8
The splinters along ethnic lines in Georgia
Voice Of Times
In August 1992, simmering ethnic tensions in Georgia's Abkhazia region exploded into a 13-month war which ended in a military victory for Abkhaz separatists but a political stalemate that continues today. The Abkhaz war was one of most brutal and consequential conflicts sparked by the breakup of the USSR. For the separatists, it was a matter of restoring Abkhaz identity. For the Georgians, it was about stopping their country from being cut into pieces. The region's coastline was the favoured holiday spot for the Soviet elite but, as the USSR headed towards collapse, this jewel of the Georgian coast began to splinter along ethnic lines.
The Georgians, or Kartvelians, are a nation and indigenous Caucasian ethnic group native to Georgia and the South Caucasus. Large Georgian communities are also present throughout Russia, Turkey, Greece, Iran, Ukraine, the US and European Union. Abkhazia, also known as Apkhazeti, officially the Republic of Abkhazia, is a partially recognized state in the South Caucasus, recognized by most countries as part of Georgia, which views the region as an autonomous republic.
The ethnic cleansing of Georgians in Abkhazia, refers to the ethnic cleansing, massacres and forced mass expulsion of thousands of ethnic Georgians living in Abkhazia during the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict of 1992-1993 and 1998 at the hands of Abkhaz separatists and their allies. Armenians, Greeks, Russians and opposing Abkhazians were also killed. 2,67,345 Georgian civilians were registered as internally displaced persons. The ethnic cleansing and massacres of Georgians has been officially recognized by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe conventions in 1994, 1996 and again in 1997 during the Budapest, Lisbon and Istanbul summits and condemned the "perpetrators of war crimes committed during the conflict."
On May 15, 2008, the UNGA adopted a resolution in which it "Emphasizes the importance of preserving the property rights of refugees and internally displaced persons from Abkhazia, Georgia, including victims of reported "ethnic cleansing", and calls upon all Member States to deter persons under their jurisdiction from obtaining property within the territory of Abkhazia, Georgia in violation of the rights of returnees". The UNSC passed a series of resolutions in which it appealed for a cease-fire.
The Human Rights Watch report which was drafted in 1995 and included detailed account of the war crimes and atrocities committed during the war concludes that, "Human Rights Watch finds Abkhaz forces responsible for the foreseeable wave of revenge, human rights abuse, and war crimes that was unleashed on the Georgian population in Sukhumi and other parts of Abkhazia. In Human Rights Watch's judgment, these practices were indeed encouraged in order to drive the Georgian population from its homes."
According to international law, forcing members of an ethnic community to change their identity is considered a form of discrimination and a violation of human rights. But as one of the leaders of the Georgian refugee community and the former chairperson of the Supreme Council of the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia, Giorgi Gvazava, said, "The Abkhazian authorities feel the support of Moscow and disregard such accusations." Gvazava also stressed that, especially over the past few years, the anti-Georgian policies in Abkhazia have become particularly cruel.
To Gvazava, in order to force people to change their ethnic identity and declare themselves Abkhazians, the separatist authorities use not only intimidation but also administrative leverage. Namely, the Georgian population of the Gali district is deprived of passports and all civil rights, including curtailed rights to own property. "Georgian residents of Gali have to either accept the fact that their home, where their grandfathers lived, can be confiscated at any time by the authorities as property of the state of Abkhazia, or they must accept the program for the 'final solution of the Georgian question in Abkhazia,' " Gvazavastated.
This program, Gvazava noted, has proceeded along several progressive stages. First, all Georgian schools were closed in the Gali district. The Georgian language is taught as a separate subject only a few hours a week, even though the ethnic-Georgian community of Abkhazia requested that children be allowed to study all disciplines.
In the second stage, Georgians were stripped of their passports, deprived of the right to participate in local elections and denied the right to own property. To reverse these sanctions, local ethnic Georgians were given only one recourse: providing the administration of the Gali district with an official statement that their ancestors were not Georgians but Abkhazians and requesting to "reclaim [their] Abkhaz surnames and Abkhaz identity." To consider this application, the Abkhazian administration requires further evidence of "loyalty," including the rejection of Georgian citizenship. At that point, the Georgian individuals residing in Gali are officially recognized as "ethnic Abkhaz," issued an Abkhazian passport, and are again granted the right to participate in elections and own real estate.
The current "temporary" border restrictions remain in place to this day, making it practically impossible to travel from Abkhazia to sovereign-controlled Georgia. Young people who live in the Gali district of Abkhazia and wish to take their exams at universities in Georgia are forced to risk their lives by climbing over a barbed wire fence. Some have reportedly been injured in these attempts. Russian border guards stationed at the Georgian-Abkhazian border are permitted to open fire and shoot "intruders."
Many ethnic Georgians born and raised in Abkhazia who have remained there since the region broke away with Russian backing during the August 2008 war, regularly take the deadly risk of crossing into Georgia proper for socio-economic reasons. Inside Abkhazia, their only prospect for attaining equal civil rights is to change their ethnic identity and declare that they are ethnic Abkhaz, not Georgians.
Abkhaz celebrated their "independence day" in 2014. Since the war, Abkhazia has been shunned by the international community. But in 2008, shortly after the Russia-Georgia war, Russia formally recognized Abkhazia. Then-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili responded that Abkhazia is "not an internal Georgian problem, or a question of Georgia and Russia. This is now a question of Russia and the rest of the civilized world."
AvikGangopadhyay, an author, critic and columnist, writes from Kolkata, India