By Etuna Tsotniashvili
Thursday, December 9
With the aim of restoring trust, peaceful dialogue and sharing information on the current situation, a group of Georgian and Abkhazian young people participated in a workshop held in Pristina, Kosovo.
6 days of dialogue were held on November 29-December 4 which was attended by 6 representatives from the Abkhazian and Georgian sides. Young persons with different backgrounds and different opinions made for extremely interesting dialogue and, overall, a successful process.
On the very first day, each participant introduced themselves and tried to explain what they were expecting from that dialogue. It revealed that the majority of them wanted to find friends, restore trust, exchange information, have constructive dialogue, conduct more analysis about our conflict, break existing stereotypes and achieve a consensus on several issues.
The dialogue did not pass without emotion, however each of the sides tried to discuss the existing problems they were facing. Abkhazians, while speaking about themselves and their ‘state’, did not hide negative feelings towards the Georgian Government. “They [Russia] recognized us and we are grateful for that, but it does not mean that we want to join Russia. All we need is independence,” one of the Abkhaz side’s representatives said during the dialogue. “No one wants us, neither Europe nor United States, what should we do? Join Georgia? No way! Better to rely on Russia.”
Such attitudes were not easy listening for Georgians however each of our group members expressed huge restraint while listening and responding which helped to provide a basis for constructive dialogue.
While introducing each other, the organizers gave a task to describe in one minute one of the happiest moments in our lives. One of the Abkhazian representatives remembered as such: It was when Abkhazia defeated Georgia in 1993 and the second that I remember well is when Russia recognized Abkhazia’s independence in 2008. “I could not hide my tears of happiness, I really was the happiest person that, at last after so many years, Russia recognized us,” she said.
Participants from the Abkhazian group described the situation in Abkhazia. From an economic point of view there are problems. The prices are high and do not correspond with salaries; in many cases the consumers cannot buy the things they need. A high rate of unemployment is one of the biggest problems there, even in the summer season when Abkhazia should be one of the most attractive destinations for tourists, because of not having good infrastructure and qualitative service in the tourism sector, they do not receive much income. Studying abroad is a serious problem for Abkhazian youth. In private talks, one of the Abkhazian guys told me that he has a great wish to go to the UK to improve his English language knowledge, however problems in terms of travelling abroad are a huge obstacle.
“We can go freely in just four countries (those countries which recognized Abkhazia’s independence: Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru), we are isolated but our major goal, to be independent, is already more or less achieved, we do hope other states will recognize us,” Abkhazians said.
What is most noteworthy is that we could freely talk on all kinds of topics including the Kosovo situation and discuss the Kosovo case. While working in groups none of us had any problem to sit next to Abkhazians in one group and talk and discuss this topic. But the situation was getting tense when talks were on political issues and the returning of IDPs to their homes in Abkhazia. Despite their insistence on using the word ‘refugees’ instead of IDPs, a consensus was reached whereby they agreed to use Internally Displaced People rather than refugees. Thereafter, they strongly opposed any possible opportunity of IDPs returning to their homes, emphasizing that they will not be able to live next to them after all they have experienced during the war.
“Even if my government allows those people to return back to Abkhazian territory, I will never allow my then neighbours to come and continue living next to me as it was before. Even if I become a prisoner…Yes, we were living together once, but war changed everything. Once neighbours and friends, we picked up guns and shot each other. From that time we became enemies rather than friends,” one of the young participants told us.
These discussions took place after a meeting with the representative of Kosovo Property Agency, who talked about Serbian properties which remained in Kosovo territory after the 1999 war. According to him, each Serb who left Kosovo during or after war who left behind property (house or land), has a right to address the Kosovo property agency and dictate how they would like their property to be managed. If they do not plan to return to Kosovo, they can rent it out and KPA will take responsibility to transfer the money to the property owner. This aroused massive interest among the Abkhazians and several questions were asked regarding the issue. One of the Abkhazian’s questions to the KPA representative was what would be his reaction if Serbs return to Kosovo’s territory and continue their lives there, he answered: “For me, as an educated guy, I do not see any problem with them coming back to Kosovo’s territory. I have several Serbian friends with whom I talk, drink… so what is the problem here?” this answer seemed very strange among the Abkhazian participants, maybe it dawned on them that human rights, including their property rights, should be protected everywhere.
On our side, we talked about reforms in Georgia, political life, economy, army tourism etc. they were interested in what life is really like in Georgia, because they are isolated, not only in terms of movement abroad but they are in an informational vacuum. Only Russian TV channels are broadcast and, accordingly, they only hear about Georgia from a Russian perspective. When we talked about foreign investments and the business climate in Georgia, they could not hide their surprise asking: can foreign investors directly buy property in Georgia?
Abkhazians were permanently pleading with us to recognize their independence, although we tried to persuade them that, before their ‘recognition’ many serious issues should be solved and after it we could talks about their status, but not recognition. We highlighted our attention on returning IDPs to their homes and making guarantees that they would be safe there, however all of them told us that no such guarantees would be given. One of my friends asked, what if I go to Abkhazia, will you give me safety guarantees? None of them said yes. Thus, my friend said that if an Abkhazian crossed Enguri Bridge and came in to Georgian controlled territory, he would give him safety guarantees for the time being. He said he believed that he would be safe in Georgia, although he responded that ‘this time has not come yet.”
In making an overall assessment on Georgian-Abkhazian dialogue I can say that there is a readiness in the Abkhazian society to have relations with Georgian society on non political issues, including the social-economic and cultural spheres. Youngsters should have an opportunity to develop ties between each other at least on neutral matters. Our young generation do not know each other at all and have no information on how they live, what do they feel and what should have been done in the future.
From that meeting I guessed that just declaring that we want Abkhazia back is useless. When there is no trust, no relations, no talks, no dialogue in such terms thinking on Abkhazia’s return is just a dream. One thing is clear; as long as there are no ties the conflict will be frozen. We should do our best to use all kinds of peaceful levers to gain trust and normal relations. We cannot change geography and our neighbours, but we can change our policy and attitude.
No one denied that such a meeting was highly important as the meeting participants declared there is an informational vacuum about what is really going on in the oppose side of the conflict.
Despite many differences in opinion, the youngsters involved acknowledged the importance of dialogue in Georgia – Abkhazia relations and agreed that there is no alternative but to speak with each other.
IKV Pax Christi and Berghof Peace Support in partnership with: Agency for Economic, Social & Cultural Development International Center on Conflict & Negotiation World Without Violence are conducting a series of four Abkhazian-Georgian and four South Ossetian-Georgian dialogue sessions. The goal of the project is getting to know residents of conflict zones and other regions and actively participate in dialogue with one another.
The next round of dialogue will be held in Moldova next week between Georgian and South Ossetian youngsters.