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What kind of peace is there in Gali?

June 23, 2023
Nino Kakhishvili, Netgazeti

Ethnic Georgians living in Gali district (of Abkhazia) more and more often speak about a “peaceful cohabitation” with Abkhazians. But what is the price of such peaceful cohabitation? 

Liana, 33, lives in Gali with her child and elderly parents. The woman says that nowadays the life in Gali “is getting better”, she has no problem with employment, and works at three places.
In 1992, during the Abkhazian war, Liana’s family fled to Zugdidi.

“We were settled into a big house together with several families. I don’t remember that period, but from my mother I have heard that they [local population] did not really like IDPs. Most people were angry at us. In those days people lived in hardship and we became an additional burden.  That’s why my mother decided to return home by detour and dangerous ways even before Ardzinba allowed (Georgian) IDPs to return to their homes in Gali district. During that period our house in Gali was robbed several times. They even tried to kidnap me. I remember life was terrible till 2008. Total chaos, fear. We were afraid even to go to Sukhumi. Now we are feeling well. Now there is a normal attitude from Abkhazians towards us. I can visit Sukhumi, Gagra and Bitchvinta freely. All our youth go there for work as waiters, cooks or drivers”.
Natela, a resident of Gali district (we don’t mention her surname because she wished to be anonymous) is employed in a local public sector.  According to her, the life in Gali today is safe and the relations between Abkhazians and Georgians are normal. 

“Nobody tries to offend us. Abkhazians and Georgians live and work side by side and enjoy friendship between families. We don’t see Russian soldiers in the town because they are prohibited to leave military camps. Just sometimes they bring their children to kindergartens and schools.”
Another resident of Gali Marina, 67, speaks about the peaceful cohabitation with Abkhazians.
“I am Russian, but I’ve been living here, in Gali since I was born. My husband is Megrelian and consequently our children are Megrelians too. My daughter is married to an Abkhazian for 10 years. So, my grandchildren are Abkhazians.
Matters over which politicians are at loggerheads with each other are not of our concern. We lead our regular life. Georgians and Abkhazians mourn together at funerals and have a good time together at weddings. We don’t ask each other who is [Abkhazian and] who [is Georgian]. I speak Russian and Megrelian. Now, with grandchildren I learn Abkhazian. But it is hard to learn a new language at my age.  We nearly never travel to Sukhumi. As for Zugdidi, we often travel there. With my documents I can often cross the border.”

We read about the recent peaceful cohabitation of Abkhazians and ethnic Georgians in Gali in the 2022 research of a non-government organization Social Justice Center titled  Double Exclusion Places: Human Rights and Social Challenges in Gali and Akhalgori district, where respondents state that for several years, Abkhazians coming to work in Gali from different regions have good relationship with the local residents and through such  fellowship  and personal connections Gali residents can handle bureaucratic formalities. 
“For a long time Gali and the Gali district were isolated from the rest of Abkhazia. The relationship between Abkhazians and Georgians was broken, while the trade and relative ties with Gali and village residents were more preserved on the part of Georgians. However, as time went by, these relations and connections were restored, people began visiting each other, trade was renewed in the west of Abkhazia and Gali residents resumed looking for jobs in the rest of Abkhazia. On their part, Gali residents often help Abkhazians in coming to the Georgia controlled territory for trade and medical services or for other issues,”- reads the research report.

Problems about which respondents speak and don’t speak
In parallel to talking about the “peaceful” life, the respondents of Netgazeti mention the so-called “passports issue” as the most important problem for the Gali residents. 
Abkhazian legislation allows dual citizenship only with the Russian Federation. Because of the fact that Gali residents have Georgian citizenship, they are restricted to obtain Abkhazian citizenship. Ethnic Georgians need Abkhazian passports to vote or run in elections. Furthermore, Georgians need passports to obtain university diplomas and school certificates, to exercise property rights, to cross the border and to receive various “state services”. According to various reports, up to date, about 1000 Georgians hold Abkhazian passports.
“If they give us the local passports, we would be 100% fine. I don’t have a passport, only a residence card. With this card we don’t even have the right to own a house that was built by us. We cannot live and study in Russia either. This means nobody needs us: neither Russia nor Abkhazia and Georgia,”- says Liana, 33.

“The only problem of ours is that we don’t have passports. However, I understand this is an issue of political speculations. In 2014, it became reason to dismiss the president (of Abkhazia). Even today they are afraid that if they provide us with passports there would be protests and an overthrow of the government. Nevertheless, this problem has to be resolved one day; meanwhile, people leave [Gali]. They see that Abkhazia doesn’t need them and they are moving to Georgia. Over there, they live quietly, not mentioning where they are from, and build their careers,”- says Natela, 51, from Gali.

Beside the "passportization" and accompanying rights, ethnic Georgians don’t have the right to express opinion in public; often they don’t speak about this problem even anonymously. 

What do the experts and research say about integration and “peace” in Gali?

According to the research of the Social Justice Center, which is based on in-depth interviews with Gali residents, the issue of integration of the residents of Gali and Gali district into Abkhazian society is still acute:  most Abkhazians still do not trust the Georgians living in this region and Gali residents do not trust Abkhazians, because Gali residents do not consider themselves to be the full members of the Abkhazian society.
“According to Gali residents, there is an assumption in the rest of Georgia that those who returned back to Abkhazia are happy because they managed to return to their homes. But the truth is that those who returned to Gali, live in constant fear and terror. The political situation always changes on the territories both within and beyond control of Georgia affecting the fate of the people living there. 

The interviews with the local residents demonstrated that after the Russian invasion of Ukraine the situation got tenser in Gali too. 

“The control over Georgians was enhanced in order not to allow them to support Ukraine and complain against occupation and ethnic harassment. The facts of denouncement and spying became more frequent, and distrust toward the Georgian side is deepening.” 

Gali, June 2023; photo by: Netgazeti

Researcher Anna Tsurtsumia speaks to Netgazeti about the pretended peace and the oppression which has not begun just now for Gali residents.
“For the last 30 years, the term “Abkhazian” did not mean only the representative of ethnic group for Gali residents, it meant the one with absolute power, a chief, and decision-maker, someone above Georgians. That’s why this seemingly peaceful cohabitation is destined to failure because it’s not based on equality but on oppression. Giga Otkhozoria’s murder illustrates how “peace” is made for Georgians in Abkhazia. Giga lived on the other side of Enguri River, he opposed the fact he considered to be unfair when he was killed on the Georgia controlled territory controlled. Nobody was held accountable for this crime,” says Anna.

The researcher believes that for Abkhazian authorities Gali population became the personification of Georgia which fought against them and now it became possible to oppress this group of Georgians without any responsibility.
“Oppression has different forms of which the oppressed person may not even be aware, because the generation of Georgians living in Gali have no experience of a peaceful life.  During the events of May 1998 that have never been given a proper name, hundreds of Georgians killed and the only reason for their persecution was their being Georgians.  Such events do not disappear without trace in the group consciousness and behavior. It was clear for Gali residents that they had to pay the price of slavery to live in their own houses. Economic oppression is also well known to Gali Georgians, which is considered to be a norm here. The population is constantly afraid to harvest nuts and citrus, as the received income or the harvest may be taken away without asking permission. 
The price of integration is high. You deny your identity and identify yourself not as a Georgian but as a Megrelian. Gali residents want to live in peace, but more than that they want to live in their own houses. The decision to live in their own houses without leaving some alternatives became an irreparable decision for many,” says the researcher.

Aleko Tskitishvili, the executive director of HRC speaks to Netgazeti about tendencies of peaceful cohabitation and integration of Gali population with Abkhazians:                                                   

“The representatives of Human Rights Center time after time meet Gali residents and listen to their concerns and views about the problems existing in Abkhazia, particularly in Gali district. First of all, these people are IDPs living in Samegrelo and other regions where the jurisdiction of Georgia extends, but time to time they manage to visit and stay with their relatives in Gali. On the other hand, we meet people who live in Gali, and temporarily move to other regions of Georgia for different purposes. We learn from them that recently the attitudes towards Georgian population living in Gali has been changing from the side of Abkhazian population and the Abkhazian de facto administration. The situation is improving and the relationships tend to be warmer.

But main systemic problems are still not resolved, particularly oppression on the Georgians living in Gali and violation the rights on ethnic grounds (like prohibition to study in mother tongue, also, so-called termination of citizenship, that leads to withdrawals from different social programs and other problems).  I think, the Georgian government can resolve these problems step by step if not altogether. Those who seek will find. I believe first of all there must exist the format for negotiations, where the Georgian authorities would meet with the representatives of de-facto authorities without mediation of Russia which is the instigator of the conflict and animosities but pretends in hypocrisy to have good intentions. One-to-one negotiations would solve lots of problems even at the household level and not only in the Gali region, but generally.

After the experience of negotiations and agreements is built, it would be possible to have dialogue on wider topics such as reconciliation and de-occupation (why not?!) I understand that it’s a distant perspective, but without the dialogue this process will never start. But those formats of negotiations, where Russia is a party and pretends to be a conciliatory judge, are doomed to fail.

Gali, June 2023; photo by: Netgazeti

According to Aleko Tskitishvili, HRC tries to facilitate the process of restoration of trust and reconciliation between Georgian and Abkhazian societies. The readiness of Georgian society largely depends on dealing with the past, i.e., the process in which we made mistakes too allowing the Russian-inspired conflict to deepen.
“Dealing with the past and building opportunities for future relationships became the basis for the process of reconciliation and civil consent after the II World War in Europe; this became the basis for the modern European Union. Accordingly, activation of similar approaches for Georgia, which is on the verge of becoming a full member of the European family, should become the basis for the transformation and normalization of its conflicts,”- reads  the document prepared by civil organizations and experts titled The vision of civil society and recommendations for opportunities to conceptualize the past and restore trust that was prepared at a conference organized by HRC.

The publication was prepared in the frame of the project “Support to confidence-building between Tbilisi, Sukhum/i and Tskhinval/i and Promotion Dealing with Past Dialogue within the Georgian Society” with the support of German Federal Foreign Office’s funds by Ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen), Funding programme Zivik”.  The views expressed in the article may not necessarily represent the views of the donor. 

Каков мир в Гали -