Q&A | How Can Gali Residents be Heard?

The tragic drowning of the four Gali residents who were trying to cross Enguri river towards the Tbilisi-controlled Zugdidi district has made headlines in the Georgian media. Their daily plight comes into sharper focus on the back of the news, that over three thousand were detained trying to cross the dividing line in the first quarter of 2021. The “local elections” in Abkhazia paint a bleak picture – of the estimated 30 thousand Gali residents (with their absolute majority being ethnic Georgians with Georgian citizenship, as counted by the Sokhumi authorities), only 900 can vote. Gali residents are under-represented and voiceless – both in Sokhumi and in Tbilisi. We have approached three Tbilisi-based researchers and activists, all originally coming from the Gali district, with the following question:

The tragedy of Gali residents who drowned trying to cross the Enguri river brought their plight painfully to public attention. This is, effectively, a voiceless community. How do you think we can make the voices of Gali residents better heard – nationally and, perhaps, internationally?

Eliko Bendeliani, Researcher, Peace and Conflict Issues

The population of Gali has been living in severe conditions for years. The people living there have a sense of insecurity which is why they cannot talk boldly and openly about the problems and challenges they face. Often this topic is politicized and instead of solving the problem, the parties are resort to mutual accusations and shallow discussion of the issue. Due to limited access to information and lack of direct contacts, the general public is unaware of the challenges facing Gali residents and their perceptions. Therefore, it is difficult and most importantly – not considered a priority – to raise these issues and work towards their solution.

It is important to create a safe space where Gali residents will be given the opportunity to talk about the challenges they face without fear. Existing dialogue platforms do not allow this, I think it is important to create different spaces for dialogue, with different formats and compositions. Politicians and public officials should take responsibility for this issue and take real and effective steps to alleviate the plight of these people. It should be a closed meeting, both with individual local community leaders as well as in an extended format, where the locals will be able to talk about their problems with people who are able to solve these problems, without media presence and publicity. I have the feeling that today, due to the lack of such direct communication, a large vacuum exists between the decision-makers and the Gali residents, which further complicates the situation.

Ann Tsurtsumia-Zurabashvili, Researcher

The tragic death of four Gali residents in the Enguri River illustrates the countless problems that Abkhazia’s last-remaining ethnic Georgian community face on a daily basis, be it poverty, systemic discrimination or violation of fundamental human rights, including the freedom of movement across the Enguri bridge – the lifeline for nearly 30,000 Gali Georgians.

For me, however, three things stand out in particular. First, the nearly three-decade-long political limbo has turned the locals into a voiceless and effectively, a right-less group of people. For nearly thirty years, Gali residents have lived in the absence of genuine political and institutional representation. The locals have been treated as aliens by Russian and Abkhaz authorities, while the loss of control over the territory in the early 1990s has meant that there has been no one in the state institutions in Georgia, who could claim agency and legitimacy of representing the locals. The government of the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia (in exile in Tbilisi), has no real power and warrants near-zero trust and legitimacy among the local Gali population.

Secondly, the drowning was also a reminder that discriminatory practices towards Gali Georgians are also used by the government of Georgia (albeit, certainly to a much lesser extent). For nearly a decade, the state medical referral program available for residents of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia has systematically excluded Gali residents, since as Georgian citizens they are eligible for universal healthcare – a much thriftier scheme. In a similar vein, responding to the Coronavirus, the Georgian government imposed a 5-day quarantine for Gali residents without considering the political, social, and economic ramifications. This has effectively put the locals in a crossfire: the restrictions (and detentions/fines) of Russian and Abkhaz authorities on the one side, and the mandatory quarantine imposed by Tbilisi on the other. An increasing number of Gali residents decided to bypass the official crossing point – the Rukhi-Chuburkhinji bridge to avoid these restrictions – and took to the river – a dangerous but more flexible and shorter route. And lastly, the death demonstrated yet again that Gali residents feature in the Georgian media only when events lead to tragic consequences, leaving their everyday struggles, trials, and worries invisible to the rest of the country and to the outer world.

Zviad Adzinbaia, International Security Fellow – the Fletcher School

Giving Gali residents a voice should begin by protecting them and treating them equally. An immediate option to do so would be removing COVID restrictions and vaccinating nearly thirty thousand citizens in Gali. Such an action would have a sizeable impact. Secondly, the Georgian diplomatic and policy community should work hard through international formats to open the Enguri bridge for free crossing. This would enable Gali residents to securely cross the occupation line, take care of their livelihoods and see their families. As a mid-term diplomatic solution, Georgia’s state institutions should make clear to all stakeholders in Abkhazia that depriving Georgians in Gali of fundamental rights will come at a tangible cost – such as the reduction of access to international funding. In giving voice to the voiceless Gali residents, Georgian media and civil society can have a crucial role. A single piece of quality reporting or an awareness campaign may save and better lives among the Gali residents.