Abkhazia, Georgia’s breakaway region on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, boasts a lively civil society: there are approximately 100 non-governmental organisations registered in the region of 240,000 people, according to the Institute of the Eurasian Economic Union
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union Abkhazians opposed the central government and fought to assert their identity and Abkhazia fought a bitter war with Georgia in the early 1990s. Since 1993, it has been de facto independent, despite being claimed by Georgia as a part of its territory, and it is currently recognised only by four UN member states, including Russia.
The conflict resulted in the Georgian population to leave the region. Yet in the southern district of Gal, widely known by its Georgian name of Gali, ethnic Georgians, who speak Mingrelian as their mother tongue and are often identified by the authorities as such, make up for a majority of its population and face daily challenges in issues like documents and education.
The ethnic Georgians are looked upon with suspicion, as if the 30,000 people were a fifth column advancing the interests of the Georgian government due their cultural, linguistic, and personal ties. The mistrust affects as well the local NGOs engaging with the population in Gal to increase security and to advance their legal, social, and linguistic integration into wider Abkhazian society.
Calls to limit the activities of non-governmental organizations have increased. Critics solicit a law mirroring a Russian bill which requires all NGOs financially supported by international donors to register as “foreign agents.” The phrase bears negative connotations in Abkhazian society and such a label could significantly damage the organisations’ reputation and operational capacity.
Activists from three Abkhazian NGOs who conduct activities in Gal region discussed with Chai Khana the history of their work, current programmes and projects, and main challenges they find in their work today.
Sukhum Youth House
Founded in 1997, the Sukhum Youth House (SYH) initially focused on post-conflict psycho-rehabilitation for people affected by the war in the early 1990s. It has since expanded its activities to education, providing language classes, computer literacy, visual and performing arts as well as training for parents and ad-hoc courses for organisations working with youth.
“We focus on children whose families were particularly hit by the conflict, mainly in Eastern Abkhazia, although the whole country was affected,” explains Elena Kobakhia, founding director of the SYH. “Our aim is to include children from all regions.”
Gal was on the organization’s radar since its inception.
"The local population are citizens of our country who need support to an even higher degree, because they live in the volatile areas by the border,” adds Kobakhia
The wounds are deep and for years after the end of the conflict the area in Gal suffered from lack of security and alienation, stemming from mistrust as well as a language barrier. Deputy director Aida Ladaria maintains that “integrating people from Gal is one of the civil society’s duty.”
“We do our best to increase knowledge and understanding about Abkhazia, many people have never been to Sukhum and it is just a few kilometres away,” she says. “The post-war generation had even less chance to establish contacts with Abkhazian people from the rest of Abkhazia., also because the war severed ties among all the regions. We worked to re-establish trust between the communities.”
Centre for Humanitarian Programmes
The Centre for Humanitarian Programmes (CHP) was one of the first NGOs established after the 1992–1993 conflict. Similar to Sukhum Youth House, CHP began its work with post-conflict psycho-rehabilitative programmes and it has gradually evolved into an organisation focusing on strengthening the civil society and consolidating Abkhazia’s democratic institutions.
The legislative framework and bureaucracy are often a challenge for inhabitants of the Gal region who end up in a vulnerable position — issue of passports formal recognition of documents, such as birth certificates and registration of marriages between inhabitants of Gal and citizens of Georgia can be a nightmare. Cases were reported of people from Gal, who are currently not considered citizens of Abkhazia, who were illegally made to serve in the Abkhazian army, and then illegally prosecuted for desertion. CHP runs a legal advice office in Sukhum and the towns of Gal, Ochamchyra, and Tkuarchal in eastern Abkhazia.
“Everything is politicised in Gal because it is mostly populated by ethnic Georgians and it is located close to the border,” notes Diana Kerselyan, CHP’s project coordinator who is keen to stress that Gal region is part of their pan-Abkhazian activity scope. “Whatever you do there, you must be very careful to not cause harm to the people, because they can suffer even more if you make a mistake.”
Kerselyan recognizes the distrust the local administration has towards CHP as it often operates thanks to international financial funding. That said, the luck of trust extends to other segments of Abkhazian society.
“There are circles despicing us, they claim we protect the rights of Gal population, but we don’t care about the abkhazians’ and other people,” she laments. “It is just not true! We work all over Abkhazia. and if we look at the figures from our legal advice office, we can see that the majority people seeking legal advice are Abkhaz. Maybe there is a lack of information, maybe people are under the influence of propaganda in our complicated geopolitical context.”
Institute for Democracy
The Gal-based Institute for Democracy was founded in 2007 with the assistance of the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) with a clear focus on human rights issues in the region.
“We work on establishing a communication line between the authorities and the local population”, explains Eduard Torua, one of the organisation’s leaders. “In Abkhazia, people usually approach NGOs who then reach out to the authorities. It would be far more effective if people could contact directly the officers in charge, without intermediaries.”
The Institue established the Public Support Group with representatives in fifteen communities in eastern Abkhazia. Each delegate would brief the organization about the general situation and security threats in the respective community and with this piece of information the Institute would then approach the authorities to discuss the eventual problems, organise meetings in the communities, so that locals could present directly the authorities what their problems are.”
Uncertainty is the word defining an array of issues in the Gal region. As inhabitants are not considered citizens of Abkhazia, there is no applicable legal framework to solve many of their daily challenges.
“People don’t know whether they should consider themselves citizens of Abkhazia, or simply “inhabitants.” They feel insecure,” explains Torua. “Without Abkhazian citizenship, they don’t have a right to legally run a business, to get a driving licence, and they are not entitled to an inheritance, or to make purchases, because a notary won’t register their agreements. There are also issues related to education, access to healthcare, and freedom of movement.”
The Institute for Democracy’s activities attract mixed attitudes from the local government.
“The general distrust towards the work of NGOs is not new, nor are civil society organisations in Abkhazia, but authorities change so often that every new government seems something new. There is also a great deal of propaganda saying that NGOs engage in “subversive activities.”
When asked for the aim of his activities, Mr Torua says that he wants to achieve peace.
“I want people in the Gal region to realise their dignity, to feel that they can enjoy the same rights as any inhabitants of western Abkhazia. They didn’t come to live here twenty or forty years ago. They are the native population of this part of Abkhazia and they have every right to be full-fledged citizens of this country. I want equality for all and no belittlement of national minorities. This will bring peace, accord, and development. We’ll be able to go ahead together.”
This material may contain terms, which are not favoured by all the parties of the dispute/conflict. Terms used in a material belong to the author and not Chai-Khana.