Tragic Drowning in Enguri Highlights Tbilisi’s Policy Failure in Gali

The tragedy of April 7, when four Gali district residents drowned in the Enguri River while trying to bypass the checkpoint, struck Georgia as a rare, tangible manifestation of the extent of hardship that Gali residents in occupied Abkhazia have to endure. The region is neglected by Sokhumi, de-prioritized by official Tbilisi, and relegated to the lost causes by most Georgians. Only the tragedies punctuate the media landscape – albeit briefly – to solicit a quick and predictable emotional outrage, but not much more in terms of tangible change in policy.

On April 11, Abkhazia voted to elect local councils for a four-year term. Ironically, the highest turnout (58%) was recorded in the Gali district, where only 900 eligible voters were registered – from estimated 30,259 residents. Thus, even if we leave aside the matter of legitimacy, Gali residents have no effective representation, no formal way to affect their fate.

It is important to note that Gali district area under Russia-backed Abkhaz administration is significantly smaller than the traditional Gali municipality area, that being in place since Soviet occupation years, Georgia recognizes to this day. In the mid-1990s, Abkhaz created a new Tkvarcheli municipality at the expense of Gali as well as Ochamchire municipalities. Under Abkhaz rule, part of Gali municipality, namely Georgian-majority Achigvara village, was also ceded to Ochamchire district.

The problem is not recent. The Gali district, populated mostly by ethnic Georgians, is stuck in a conflict limbo, where loyalties – and citizenship – are defined by ethnicity. The dilemma of Gali for the Sokhumi administration is the choice between allowing the locals to integrate, and living with the potential electoral consequences of their political participation.

For Tbilisi, the dilemma is similar in essence – can the Georgian authorities push for the Gali residents to have more voice in Abkhazia affairs, without “recognizing” the agency and legitimacy of the Abkhaz authorities? Consequently, driven by fears, Sokhumi has been depriving Gali residents of their basic political rights, while Tbilisi has repeatedly failed to develop a coherent policy for protecting the rights of its vulnerable citizens on the other side of Enguri.

Human Rights and Political Participation

The humanitarian and political problems the Gali’s residents are facing daily are manyfold. These people were deprived of their political rights twice – in 2014 and in 2017 when former Abkhaz leader Raul Khajimba stripped the majority of them of ‘Abkhaz citizenship’ and started issuing residence permits instead.

The Abkhaz ‘parliament’ passed on April 4, 2014, a resolution, which said that passports, issued upon the recommendations of “illegally” set up commissions in Gali, Ochamchire and Tkvarcheli, “cannot validate citizenship of the Abkhaz Republic.”

The number of such passports was estimated by the Abkhaz officials to be about 25,000 or possibly 26,000. Over 46,000 ethnic Georgians live in Abkhazia, according to the 2011 official Abkhaz census.

Citing Parliament’s April 4 resolution, chairman of Provisional National Council, Raul Khajimba, said in June 2014, that 25,000-26,000 holders of those passports, issued by “illegally” set up commissions should not be allowed to vote in the August 24, 2014, early presidential elections.

This discriminating decision further deteriorated the difficult situation of Gali residents, who lost the feeling of belonging to any state unit with relevant social and political security. The Gali district gradually transformed into a terra incognita, with the exception that both sides want the territory itself, but none of them is willing to take social responsibility for the population.

A Gali resident, who prefers to remain anonymous due to the potential political pressure, tells Civil.Ge that lack of recognition from the Abkhaz government puts Gali population in a stern social situation as they cannot perform any legal operations, including “purchasing or selling the property, formalizing private documents, receiving school certificates or diplomas.”

In addition, the ethnic Georgians are under constant political oppression, the Gali resident says, adding that it is impossible “to live freely” in the district. “They listen to everything. I would be in serious trouble if they knew about me giving this interview,” she says.

While Georgia proper fails in securing basic rights for ethnic Georgian dwellers in Gali, Abkhaz authorities forge more restrictions to forcibly assimilate and integrate Gali residents into “Abkhaz socio-political space.” Allegedly challenging the “Georgianization of Abkhazia”, the local regime representatives come up with repressive initiatives aimed at changing the identity of ethnic Georgians in Gali.

This process undergoes mostly through restricting physical and cultural access to Georgia proper, closing Georgian schools, and forcibly imposing Abkhaz language and historical narrative upon the Gali residents, predominantly students.

For example, according to the Reconciliation Minister, there were 58 schools in the Gali district before the 1990s, among them 52 were Georgian, two Russian, three Georgian-Russian, and one Georgian-Abkhaz. 31 Georgian schools remaining after the war of 1992-1993 were gradually moved to Russian-language schooling in Gali district. The last 11 Georgian schools were abolished in 2015, depriving ethnic Georgians in Gali of the right to receive education in their mother tongue.

Healthcare Issues

The absence of political rights also creates additional financial and health problems, another interviewee from Gali tells Civil.Ge – “these obstacles already have caused deaths of many innocent people and further will.”

“As for proper healthcare, which has become even more essential now, only ethnic Abkhaz population of the Gali district benefit from state assistance, while the ethnic Georgian residents are left behind,” he says, adding that people “are lost” as they do not know whom to address for medical assistance.

The eruption of the Covid-19 pandemic has enhanced the urgent medical needs of Gali residents. The Abkhaz authorities closed the Enguri crossing point in late February 2020, citing coronavirus pandemic fears. With no full reopening in sight so far after a long-year closure, the Gali district dwellers have to face the severe virus crisis without quick access to proper healthcare, extremely scarce in Abkhazia itself.

The coronavirus-related economic downturn and restrictions further deteriorated the healthcare situation of the Gali population. Since the introduction of covid-19 regulations in Abkhazia and Georgia proper, the Gali residents found themselves in a certain blockade. The restrictions on movement and unusually high demand created drug shortages, while the prices of medical substances considerably increased.

“We, the Galians, are mostly dependent on agriculture, such as tangerines and nuts, but with the economic crisis, people cannot sell their harvest to buy food, drugs, and other necessities. The prices have substantially risen for medicines and everyday products, while covid-19 restrictions do not allow to collect social assistance or get proper medical help. The people with underlying diseases, who need constant care and special, expensive medicines, are in especially bad conditions,” the Gali resident describes the difficult situation.

Tbilisi’s Policy

Tbilisi’s policy towards the occupied regions fails to single out the Gali district as a unique case that requires a tailored approach. Last year, Tbilisi announced its decision that school graduates from Abkhazia and Tskhinvali/South Ossetia regions could be enrolled at their desired universities in the Tbilisi-controlled territory without participating in unified nationwide entry exams. This decision was particularly aimed at the ethnic Georgians in the Gali district, facing serious threats of Russification. However, this step, along with other governmental programs regarding the occupied regions, is a drop in the sea of what should be done.

Giorgi Kanashvili, master of Caucasian Studies, says that Tbilisi’s policy toward the Gali district is weak and not effective. The expert believes that Georgia proper should substantially change its approach to the critical region, with careful consideration of the Galians’ urgent needs.

Kanashvilis argues that the State Strategy on Occupied Territories of 2010 is outdated and does not reflect the existing realities. “It is not normal to have the same policy for the people who are loyal to the Abkhaz statehood and the ethnic Georgians in Gali,” he tells Civil.Ge, adding that Tbilisi should develop a position on how it perceives the Gali people. Kanashvili suggests that politically Tbilisi could use the Gali people as “a bridge” between two conflicted parties.

The expert also thinks that the Georgian state should put more effort into the integration of the Gali population not only in Georgia proper but even in occupied Abkhazia. “This is difficult to do politically, Georgian people might not understand, but Tbilisi should have a strategy for easing the Galians’ life in Abkhazia itself as well,” Kanashvili says.

As for other shortcomings, the respondents of Civil.Ge from the Gali district unanimously say that one of the major problems is a lack of communication between the Gali residents and Tbilisi. They stress the importance of enhancing contact between the ethnic Georgians in Gali and Georgia proper.

“The Galians are forced to mostly watch Russian TV channels, study in Russian, read the news in Russian. We are lacking information from Tbilisi, especially communication with the state authorities. Therefore, the Galians are not aware of the processes in Georgia proper, and they do not trust Georgian authorities,” one of the interviewees says.

The Georgian authorities have been criticized for their ineffective and discriminatory approach toward the Gali residents in Georgia proper as well. Among the main concerns, the absence of coherent state policy and lack of special social programs are often named. With more tragic news coming from the Gali district, the pressure on Tbilisi to revise its policy is expanding, while both, the Gali district and the rest of Georgia, anticipate the reaction from the relevant state agencies.

What next?

Reacting to the public outburst on the April 7 tragedy, the Government of Georgia dropped the quarantine for Abkhazia and Tskhinvali/South Ossetia residents traveling to Tbilisi-controlled territories, replacing it with mandatory antigen testing over COVID-19. The vital for the Gali residents’ decision came only after the horrific event and subsequent public discontent.

Nevertheless, this particular case demonstrated that strongly voicing and accentuating the problems of the ethnic Georgians in Gali can force the responsible bodies to respond. This public discontent leaves a chance for optimism that the Gali district still concerns the rest of Georgia, while giving a glimmer of hope for the Galians themselves. Aborting the quarantine regulation for the Gali residents is a positive step, which came at the expense of the preventable tragedy. With much more to be done, Tbilisi needs more calculated and far-reaching steps.

The protracted troubles of the Gali residents show that the tragedy was not an exceptional coincidence, but a logical turn of events. It was shocking but not surprising, horrifying but not unexpected. Four Gali residents fell victims to unresolved political issues and ignorance of the responsible figures, for whom the Gali district symbolizes a constant headache – too complicated to cure.

Georgian authorities often love to say that Gali is Georgia’s stronghold in occupied Abkhazia, while the Gali people protect our interests and future there. As true as it is, these words have never found a proper implication in Tbilisi’s policy towards the region.

But this time the accident is too severe to ignore, and Georgia, failing to reach a resolution to the lingering conflicts, is obliged to develop a comprehensive and effective policy to at least ease the pain of its Georgian citizens in Gali.