Georgia Hails UN Refugee Vote

Calls for refugee return to Abkhazia and South Ossetia does not mean people will get back to their homes any time soon.
  • Some refugees complain that the government has not lived up to pledges to ensure decent housing for them. (Photo: Giorgi Kupatadze)
  • Large numbers of people displaced by the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia have no immediate prospect of bringing their families home. These children are in Rukhi in western Georgia. (Photo: Giorgi Kupatadze)
  • The Georgian government built homes for refugees, such as these ones in Tserovani in the east of the country. (Photo: Giorgi Kupatadze)

Georgia has hailed a United Nations vote, backing the right of refugees to return to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as a diplomatic victory, but people displaced from the two regions say they are more concerned about living standards where they are now.

Despite strong opposition from Russia, which recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states in 2008, the UN General Assembly passed the resolution by 50 votes to 17 on September 7, with a further 86 abstaining.

Some 250,000 refugees fled Abkhazia and South Ossetia when Georgian forces were driven out in 1992-93. Some have been able to return home, but many villages remain deserted across southern Abkhazia and tens of thousands of Georgians are still displaced.

A further 26,000 people fled the advance of Russian troops in 2008, when Moscow crushed a Georgian attempt to restore control over South Ossetia, and they now live in refugee camps, their futures hostage to discussions chaired by European Union officials in Geneva.

A Russian foreign ministry statement said the UN vote would “only complicate the situation in the region, and could harm the already difficult ongoing Geneva discussions, which are currently the only dialogue format where representatives of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Georgia can directly exchange opinions and assessments of what is happening”.

The foreign ministry of Abkhazia, which is not a member of the United Nations since it has only been recognised as independent by four countries, urged the General Assembly not to vote for the return of Georgian refugees.

“In blocking Abkhazia’s participation in the discussion of such important questions, Georgia is openly demonstrating a reluctance to examine this problem objectively, and also its desire to exploit the refugee problem in future as a pretext for renewed conflict,” the ministry said.

But the protests were to no avail, and the motion was passed, although Russia highlighted the high number of abstentions and pointed out that “it was supported by only a little more than a quarter of the members of the United Nations”.

Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili was delighted with the UN vote result, which was similar to decisions taken by the General Assembly in 2008 and 2009.

“Final victory will come when the occupiers leave our territory and our people at last return to their own houses and homelands. That will be a final victory, but before that, we must go through a number of diplomatic battles,” he said, in televised comments.

Officials also noted with satisfaction that the resolution described South Ossetia and Abkhazia as parts of Georgia rather than independent countries.

Until it becomes possible for refugees to go back, the Georgian authorities have promised to ensure they have decent living conditions. Several small towns have been constructed for them to live in.

“In the last three to four years, up to 20,000 families have received housing and property throughout Georgia,” said Koba Subeliani, minister for refugees.

The construction of housing and infrastructure for the refugees is continuing, although the beneficiaries say the work is often shoddy. They accuse the authorities of failing to live up to promises of decent accommodation.

Shorena Latatia of the Human Rights Centre in Georgia said many of buildings had been put up so quickly that they were already derelict.

“This problem must be resolved before winter, when it starts to get cold. Apart from this, these IDPs [internally displaced persons] used to receive food as humanitarian aid from the UN, but now that programme has ended and their only income source is IDP payments, which which many of them can’t get as they haven’t obtained IDP status yet,” she said.

“In many settlements, IDPs have not been given additional patches of land to grow crops. Electricity used to be free, but now only a proportion is paid for, or else the IDPs have to pay for [all of it], which is hard for many of them.”

Refugees themselves seem more concerned about these day-to-day issues than the grand matters of principle debated at the United Nations.

“Of course it’s good that they have confirmed our right to return to our homes, although they really didn’t need to. Those are our homes, and of course we should have the right to return there,” Roland Kvaratskhelia, a refugee from Abkhazia who now drives a taxi in Tbilisi, said.

“It’s quite another matter that for the foreseeable future, no one is going to let us go there, as everyone knows full well. Politically, the resolution is of course important, but refugees have a very hard life, and it would be better if, before doing anything else, they improved conditions for us where we are now.”

Maia Avaliani is a freelance journalist in Tbilisi.

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Calls for refugee return to Abkhazia and South Ossetia does not mean people will get back to their homes any time soon.