A decade after the war: Why the world should support Georgia’s peace initiatives

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Two women light candles at the grave of a fallen soldier during a wreath laying ceremony at a cemetery in Tbilisi, Georgia, 8 August 2017. [EPA/ZURAB KURTSIKIDZE]

This week marks ten years since Georgia lived through a dramatic five day war with the Russian Federation. On 12 August 2008, the EU brokered a ceasefire deal bringing an end to open warfare – but not to conflict, explains Ketevan Tsikhelashvili.

Ketevan Tsikhelashvili is Georgia’s State Minister for Reconciliation and Civic Equality.

This August, the noise and shatter from large-scale military drills, involving 2,000 Russian soldiers, 400 military units and Russia’s 4th air force division, continue to plunder the grounds in Georgia’s Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia, in parallel to massive drills conducted in Abkhazia – another Russian-occupied region of Georgia at Black Sea coastline.

The noise from such military exercises, carried out over 100 times a year, have become the “new normal” for the inhabitants of these two heavily militarised regions.

For 10 years already, Russia continues to boost its exclusive presence and control over 20% of Georgia’s territories, in blatant disregard of signature-sealed obligations by Moscow in the same EU brokered ceasefire deal to withdraw and let international security mechanisms in.

The ministers of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine visited Georgia on Tuesday to mark the tragic anniversary of the Russian intervention and show solidarity.

It was ten years ago, when the heads of these states and Estonia, who stood in solidarity with Georgians in Tbilisi, and made prophetic warning that what happened in Georgia could repeat soon in Ukraine and elsewhere in a follow up.

Unfortunately, it did not take long to come true for Ukraine. The story grows and goes on. Because Georgia’s security challenge is not Georgia’s alone: it has been and continues to be a test and a threat to European security.

It will remain so until the conflict is peacefully resolved. Power politics and unresolved conflicts are exploited by Moscow as major instruments for seeking influence in immediate neighbourhood. It is no coincidence five out of six of the EU’s Eastern partnership countries face similar challenge.

And this challenge of an unresolved conflict has a dramatic implication for people affected. Current situation benefit no one on the ground – be it ethnic Georgians, Abkhazians or Ossetians.

Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states in total infringement of international law failed to mobilise followers. Only Venezuela, Nicaragua, and the pacific island of Nauru are in the club with Moscow.

Most recently, the “anniversary recognition” from Syria’s Assad regime was no cause for celebration by Abkhaz or Ossetians. With years passing, it’s more obvious that the de facto state of affairs has nothing to do with independence either. Local communities fear Russification and loss of their identity – and rightly so.

Meanwhile, 300,000 Georgians – representing the majority of the regions’ former inhabitants – remain in exile and are denied access to their homes. This is contrary to what Russia itself repeatedly voted for with UN Security Council annual resolutions up until 2009.

Continued Russian occupation is a daily challenge for thousands of other families on the ground. Around 100km of razor wire fences divide neighbours and agricultural plots in over 60 villages in the heartland of Georgia.

The Tskhinvali/South Ossetia region is nearly sealed off from the rest of Georgia and the rest of the world, with a mere 20% of its original population remaining on the ground, and in limbo. Locals are regularly detained along the occupation line by Russian FSB guards for alleged “illegal crossings” – and in large majority for trying to exit the occupied regions. All suffer.

This is why Georgia continues to take new, more dynamic and proactive steps in its peace policy, relying on much needed support and engagement from international partners towards two major tasks: de-occupation vis a vis Russia and dialogue and confidence-building among conflict-split societies.

“A Step to A Better Future” is a freshly launched peace initiative of the Government of Georgia, manifesting Georgia’s commitment to pursue peace policy against all odds.

The initiative is tailored on the needs and interests of conflict affected populations and seeks to improve their lives and encourage their contacts across the artificial divides.

The new comprehensive policy focuses on three main areas: facilitation of trade, access to education and benefits from Georgia’s progress.

The government aims at simplifying and boosting trade along the dividing lines, supporting and encouraging individuals and the joint business initiatives to bring divided societies closer, creating prosperity and making it possible for conflict-affected societies to live a more decent life.

It also envisages creating new opportunities for quality education, both in Georgia and abroad, for the population living in the occupied regions. This is especially important for youth, who should live side by side and contribute to building together a common future.

The initiative also aims at sharing the benefits which stem from Georgia’s economic and social development, and also from European integration, such as free trade opportunities or visa-waiver.

Ten years after the war, most of Georgia’s citizens move freely and without visa barriers thousands of kilometres to different destinations in the EU. Yet part of Georgia’s population may not even advance a few meters to shake hands with their neighbours, as split by razor wire fences.

It’s a sad reality but also a telling symbol for ongoing Russian occupation. It demonstrates that Georgia’s peace policy has no alternative; razor wires fences have no future.

Support and engagement of international partners is crucially important for moving forward on this peace initiative.

It is a win-win alternative that can concretely benefit people in need but also contribute to comprehensive conflict resolution by creating a solid basis for long-lasting peace in the Caucasus and the wider region. Investing in confidence-building, reconciliation and people-to-people contacts is most crucial investment in peace and stability and human – connections and bridges of confidence are most powerful ways to peacefully overcome obnoxious metal barriers which may not hold people back from freedom, progress and a better future.

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