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Georgia to Control NGO Work in Abkhazia, South Ossetia
Ana Natsvlishvili of the Human Rights Centre in Tbilisi. (Photo: Maia Avaliani)
International charities say the new restrictions the Georgian government has placed on their work in Abkhazia and South Ossetia will destroy the small amount of trust that has built up between the conflicting sides.
Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke free from Tbilisi’s control in the early 1990s, and were recognised by Russia two years ago as independent states.
International non-government groups have been among the few the only organisations working on both sides of the front lines, especially since United Nations missions were terminated last year.
Under the new “Rules for the Conduct of Activities in the Occupied Territories of Georgia”, NGO and other projects must be agreed with Georgian authorities before they are launched.
The only organisation that does not need to check in with the State Ministry for Reintegration is the International Committee of the Red Cross, which can operate freely.
“The activities of international organisations must not interfere with the resolution of the conflicts,” said Temur Iakobashvili, minister for reintegration, at a meeting of the government’s commission for the restoration of territorial integrity on November 1.
Under the new rules, the ministry has 21 working days in which to grant permission, request alterations to the project, or refuse outright, and the organisations concerned then have a right to appeal. They must submit an account of their activities twice a year.
Another requirement, that they use language deemed acceptable by Georgia, is bound to cause problems with terminology. South Ossetia, for example, is officially described as “the occupied Tskhinvali region” in Georgia.
“Not all international organisations can be allowed to work in Abkhazia or the Tskhinvali region,” Iakobashvili said.
Almost all the organisations trying to work on both sides of front lines that are patrolled by Russian troops have objected to the new rules. Experts said the limited amount of confidence that local NGOs had built up would be shattered if groups in Abkhazia and South Ossetia believed their counterparts were reporting back to the government in Tbilisi.
“I understand that the Georgian authorities need to maintain some oversight over what happens on Georgian territories that are effectively controlled by the de facto authorities and the Russian Federation, but this regulation is formulated in a vague manner, and prescribes overly bureaucratic methods of reporting and control,” said Aage Borchgrevink, who works in Georgia as an adviser for the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. “It could potentially represent an obstacle to freedom of movement for journalists and NGO workers.”
Others say the authorities in Tbilisi seem to want to take all activities relating to disputed areas firmly under their wing.
Ana Natsvlishvili of the Human Rights Centre in Tbilisi said that while NGO engagement in conflict resolution issues was supposed to create a more diverse range of options, “the government is instead creating a monopoly over the strategy, which will be binding on any organisation that wants to work in Abkhazia or South Ossetia”.
“One of the most important preconditions for [conflict resolution] is trust, and that is very rare today. It mainly exists in the civil sector and among international organisations, which have to date been neutral. But now that these organisations will have to agree projects with the Georgian government, they will effectively be forced to take sides.”
Giorgi Khutsishvili, director of the International Centre for Conflict and Negotiations, said the authorities in South Ossetia and Abkhazia might well obstruct contact with outside groups if Georgian government controls became too intrusive.
“We maintain ongoing contacts with our colleagues in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and we know that for any contacts to happen – be it a meeting or some other activity – they need to get permission from their leadership, officially or unofficially,” he said. “If there’s a Georgian government stamp on the project, they aren’t going to get permission. It’s a very sensitive area, as one of the mechanisms for building confidence is non-interference by government in the work of civil society.”
Iakobashvili expressed surprise at such criticisms, and pointed out that he met NGO leaders on November 1 to explain the law. He said the new rules actually simplified existing procedures.
“Prior to this, all projects carried out in the occupied territories had to be discussed by the government. The cabinet has decided that this will be done by just one ministry – our ministry – and within a specific timescale. We’ve set out an official procedure and a deadline for making decisions. And if there’s no decision, the answer is automatically assumed to be positive,” he said.
Nino Kharadze is a reporter for Radio Liberty
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