When Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili traveled to the Georgian-Abkhaz ceasefire line last year, he promised a crowd of Georgian refugees their return to Abkhazia within a year. But Saakashvili's promises to Georgian refugees rang hollow, even before the current crisis.
A combined total of some 250,000 Georgians fled Abkhazia following the 1992-1994 war and the two-week war in 1998. Any prospect of their return has now been lost. Instead, Tbilisi's military venture and Russia's disproportionate response in South Ossetia has augmented the number of internally displaced people in and around Georgia's breakaway states by 100,000, according to the U.N. refugee agency, UNCHR.
Last month I spoke to numerous refugees in Zugdidi, a Georgian border town a few kilometres from the ceasefire line near Abkhazia. Mzia Shakaia and her husband live in an abandoned hospital and both have resigned any hope of ever returning to their former homes in Abkhazia. The two are unemployed and Mzia's husband is confined to a wheelchair after a traffic accident. “We have no water, no electricity,” she said.
In the Abkhaz town of Gali, a day after a bomb exploded and killed four people in early July, a local resident told me that the instability serves Russia's interest. Regional instability thwarts Georgia's chances of NATO membership. Another complained of the harsh living conditions. “Look around,” he said. “Fuel and food (prices have) increased. How can I feed my children?” Russian soldiers were standing around the destroyed café as two investigators picked through the debris.
The current crisis involves more than geopolitical ramifications and a pipeline. It involves people, caught up in the misery of war and poverty caused in part by the manipulations of one impervious president in Tbilisi and a prime minister with a personal vendetta in Moscow.
Tbilisi used the return of refugees to Abkhazia as a condition for any peaceful resolution knowing full well that such a demand would never be accepted. “How can we accept or allow all the refugees to return? Some fought against us, some are innocent,” said Abkhazia's de facto Deputy Foreign Minister Maxim Gunjia.
Fifteen years is a long time to wait for a crack in the status quo. Abkhazia, internationally isolated and forced into an ambivalent relationship with Russia, is driven to become independent and recognised. Russia now demands that the breakaway regions vote on their status.
Hawks inside Abkahzia's de facto government, in particular inside the opposition parties, will want to push for a unilateral policy with Russia. Such a prospect has some Abkhazians worried. “Russia is not interested in promoting Abkhazia's civil society,” said the chair of the board of the Association of Women in Abkhazia, Natella Akabar.
Everyone speaks of peace but under inconsolable and irrevocable terms. The reality on the ground is as one would expect, desperate. Inadequate housing, lack of infrastructure, unemployment and abuse are the daily realities of Georgians living inside the Gali district of Abkhazia. And now they have become the daily realities of Georgians in Gori and those who fled South Ossetia.
Georgian refugees in Zugdidi had to surrender to bleak conditions and national strategic interests as Saakashvili diverted a large part of the budget to military spending. And to what end? Within a matter of days Russia's troops crushed Georgia's army.
Tbilisi ignored Moscow's repeated warnings of any military ventures inside the breakaway territories. And Saakashvili's rash and naive decision to launch a surprise attack on August 8 on Tskhinvali has dashed any chance of making true on his promise to the Georgian refugees.
Georgia's president gambled on Russian restraint, Western support and the lives of his fellow countrymen. And he lost. In Tbilisi, a number of Georgians are calling on Saakashvili to resign. His “democracy” has undermined his credibility and many inside the country see him as an authoritarian.
Since the Rose Revolution, Saakashvili has consolidated executive power and cracked down on media. The parliament is weak and ineffective.
The Open Society Georgia Foundation's programme manager in Tbilisi, Mikheil Mirziashvili, said in June: “Unfortunately, I tasted real democracy in the West and I can see the differences here. “The main problem in Georgia is the lack of real self-government,” he said.
This blog entry was originally posted at Reuters AlertNet.