More than a quarter million people (273,411 individuals; 88,704 families of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)) remain internally displaced in Georgia, as a consequence of two conflicts in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The majority of Abkhaz and Ossetian IDPs are waiting for realization of their rights to integrate or return; the restitution of property rights; and access to durable housing in the Tbilisi Administered Territory.
During the Soviet era, Abkhazia enjoyed the status of an “autonomous republic.” However, the territory has always been considered as an integral part of Georgia, including political, social, economic and cultural life. Around the time of the Soviet collapse, Abkhazian nationalists, supported by Russia, led a separatist movement from Georgia. Preparations for war were made under the propaganda slogan, “Abkhazia without Georgians.” Tensions escalated in 1989 when Abkhazians protested the creation of a satellite branch of the Tbilisi State University in their capital, Sukhumi. War broke out between the Georgian government and Abkhaz separatist forces in 1992. With support from Russian and North Caucasian militants, Abkhaz separatists captured the city of Sukhumi.
The OSCE later recognized that crimes of ethnic cleansing were committed against the residing Georgian population in the Abkhaz revolt. Georgia lost its control over Abkhazia, and on October the 12th, 1999, separatist government of Abkhazia released the State Independence Act of the Republic of Abkhazia. According to this document, after the war of 1992-1993, Abkhazia gained de facto independence. As a result of the conflict more than 250,000 Georgians fled their homes.
South Ossetia during communist rule had “autonomous” status, similar to Abkhazia. Despite several rebellions by ethnic Ossetians demanding independence, Soviet Georgia declared South Ossetia an “autonomous oblast” (region) in 1920. In 1989, the leaders of South Ossetia sent an official request to the Georgian Supreme Soviet Court, asking for the status of an autonomous republic.
South Ossetia declared the creation of the “Republic of South Ossetia” in 1990 and later held elections for their own “Supreme Council,” which announced its separation from Georgia thereafter. The Supreme Council of the Republic of Georgia took away South Ossetia’s status of an autonomous region, leading to armed conflict. The conflict ended on June 24, 1992 with a trilateral agreement and the deployment of Georgian, Ossetian and Russian peacekeepers to the area. Tensions escalated once again in 2004, reaching their peak in August 2008 when military actions in South Ossetia were renewed. In August 2008, Russia intervened, and after the war Russia formally recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.
Internally Displaced Persons in the Post-Conflict Era
The Law of Georgia on Internally Displaced Persons Persecuted from the Occupied Territories, considers internally displaced person (IDP) according to the following definition:
“A citizen of Georgia or a stateless person with a status residing in Georgia shall be considered as an IDP, if he/she was forced to leave his/her permanent place of residence because of threat to his/her or his/her family member’s life, health or freedom caused by the occupation of the territory by a foreign state, aggression, armed conflict, mass violence and/or massive human rights violations and/or he/she cannot return to his/her permanent place of residence due to the abovementioned reasons.”
The government of Georgia did not have any strategy or common vision on the issue of IDPs at the beginning of the conflicts. Those displaced because of the conflicts lived mostly in overcrowded concentration centers. Many of these centers failed to meet even elementary living standards or languished in disrepair. While IDPs received a monthly allowance of approximately $5 each, this small sum – jokingly called the “frozen pension” – was often paid late or not paid at all.
More than 50,000 IDP families are still living in houses not allowing for decent living conditions. They survived a cruel war, but could not gain the initial support of the government. They suffer limited access to healthcare, education, social services, and many families lost bread-winners in these conflicts, making their situation even more severe. The inability or unwillingness of Georgian government to address the needs of IDPs or in any way support their integration into local communities over the years has resulted in a social stigma as most IDPs are poor, vulnerable and cut out from normal life. Their economic situation is made more intolerable by an inability to receive loans since, without private property, IDPs do not qualify for credit.
The EU, UN and OSCE co-chair the Geneva International Discussions, with the participation of Georgian, Abkhaz, South Ossetian, Russian and US representatives. These international talks were launched in October 2008 and remain the only official platform for the promotion of a peaceful post-conflict resolution. The lastest round of talks were held on June 20-21, 2017. When the discussions reached the issue of IDPs, the Russian delegation along with the Sokhumi and Tskhinvali representatives walked out, resulted in failure to consider this point of the agenda. Thus, these talks have not resulted in improvement of the situation and the return of internally-displaced Abkhazians and Ossetians to their homes.
Over the years, with the generous support from various public and private donors, the government of Georgia has made significant progress in improving the living conditions of IDPs and in providing them with durable solutions for integration. In 2006, thanks to an initiative of President Saakashvili, the government of Georgia elaborated a state strategy for IDPs and implemented a policy to address the needs and rights of IDPs. The State Strategy Action Plan for IDPs has the following three priorities:
- Improving IDPs’ living conditions, through provision of durable housing
- Improving IDPs’ socio-economic condition
- Increasing IDPs’ awareness of their human rights
Irakli Ujmajuridze is director of IDP Livelihood Agency (within Georgia’s Ministry of IDPs), and spoke to me about projects implemented by the government to support increased self-reliance and financial sustainability among IDPs. “House in the Village” is one such project. Families can choose a private house with land in any of the regions of Georgia. If the family satisfies certain criteria, the Ministry buys this house for them. The amount of money varies between GEL 17,000 to GEL 31,000 (€6,058 – €11,047), depending on the number of family members. Another state-run program on housing to displaced people includes negotiations with developer companies to provide several apartments to IDPs in a newly constructed building where Ministry also contributes certain resources. In order to increase self-esteem of IDPs and to engage them in income-generating activities, Livelihood Agency provides free vocational education trainings and financing transportation costs to youth.
Informational campaigns run by the Agency aim to increase the awareness of IDPs about programs funded by State which give them unique opportunity to get free education or improve living conditions or receive social assistance or get opportunity to start their own business. Mr. Ujmajuridze notes that last year the awareness about the state programs among IDPs was 3% and this year it has increased up to 80%. The government provides IDPs with a monthly allowance in amount of GEL 45 (about €16). This is the only source of income for the most vulnerable IDPs.
Displacement, housing problems, unemployment and a psychological predispositions prevent many IDPs from engaging in programs offered by the government, NGOs and other public entities.
Nukri Milorava, Executive Director of the NGO Charity Humanitarian Centre Abkhazeti (CHCA), is experienced in the sphere of displacement and IDP assistance. He outlines the problem of integration of IDPs into local society:
“The facts that no one represents the interests of IDPs in the Parliament of Georgia and that IDPs do not hold leading positions in the local municipalities of big cities are good indicators of level of integration of IDPs. For example, the population of the city Tskaltubo is 7000 people. 5000 of them are IDPs, and only one IDP is working in the local school. Only two IDPs, holding the positions of a driver and doctor’s assistant, work in the local hospital.”
Mr. Milorava considers the building of “new ghettos” for the IDPs as the biggest mistake and a barrier to integration and the establishment of social contacts. By “ghettos” he means the high concentration of IDPs in one location, mostly in a rehabilitated former collective center or in a newly constructed settlement. Such centers are comprised of several buildings from four to six floors high, which can minimally accommodate hundreds of families. 90 percent of these families would be IDPs.
Mr. Milorava believes that a possible solution to the above-mentioned problems could be the integration of IDPs in the homes of private owners. The government would provide an opportunity to the IDP to choose the place of living, and cover the cost of purchasing space from private owners, providing 10-15% of their residence to IDPs. The focus should not only be on accommodation-related measures, but also on integration, increased awareness and vocational training for IDPs, so as to integrate them into the workforce.
The Georgian government should continue to closely cooperate with NGOs and international organizations to find durable solutions and help to build normal lives for those who have been internally displaced by armed conflict in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Local integration is the only durable solution since considering the complexity of the two frozen conflicts, Russia’s influence and the elusive conflict resolution, the reintegration of IDPs at the place of origin or “return” is less likely to occur.
 Svante E. Cornell. (2005). “Small Nations and Great Powers; A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus;” Taylor & Francis Group.