Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgia's Refugee Recount

The decision to count the number of Georgians displaced by the war in Abkhazia signals a policy shift by President Saakashvili.
By Gocha Khundadze

Georgia's new president Mikheil Saakashvili stunned supporters and critics alike with a recent announcement that he wanted a complete re-count of the number of people displaced by the 1992-93 war in Abkhazia.

Saakashvili's declaration was a bolt from the blue, and is the most dramatic sign yet of a general shift by his new administration towards a more conciliatory line with the breakaway republic.

"The current number of refugees - 260,000 - is grossly inflated," Saakashvili told a cabinet meeting on April 5, as he ordered government agencies to carry out a proper audit of the true number of internally displaced persons, IDPs, currently living in Georgia.

The issue is politically important because refugee statistics have been a constant bone of contention since the conflict. The Georgians say that more than half of Abkhazia's pre-war population is now living in Georgia. The Abkhaz accuse the Georgians of exaggerating refugee numbers for propaganda purposes.

According to the last Soviet census of 1989, Abkhazia had a population of 525,000, of whom 45 per cent, or 239,000 people, were ethnic Georgians. Almost all the Georgians fled Abkhazia by October 1993, when the war ended. Tens of thousands of them were resettled in makeshift accommodation in a string of Georgian towns and cities.

However, not all those who fled settled in Georgia. Many went to Russia, or further afield.

Officially Georgia has 262,217 registered IDPs of whom 11,987 are from the conflict in South Ossetia and the rest from Abkhazia. But most observers doubt these figures. Many who did initially go to Georgia have moved on: the 2002 census in Georgia revealed that the country has lost around a million people to emigration over the last decade, and people originally from Abkhazia can be assumed to be among them.

The IDP community has considerable weight, in terms of both votes and money. Saakashvili himself had his strongest political base in western Georgia, where most of the refugees are concentrated.

Georgia's "Abkhaz government-in-exile" wielded influence proportionate to the officially-stated number of refugees on Georgian territory. The government also allocated benefits to the IDPs based on the official figure.

This system - where no one reviewed IDP numbers - allowed the government officials and commercial banks, which handled the benefits, to pocket huge amounts of money. Eteri Astemirova, the newly appointed minister for refugees, told IWPR, "The previous authorities had a well-organised system of 'disorganisation' for distributing humanitarian aid to refugees. Everything was so confused that this knot is very hard to untangle."

Astemirova said different scams were used to count the refugees. In recent years, she said, after humanitarian aid from UNHCR ended in 1998, government aid was maintained for lists of refugees full of "dead souls". Last year's refugee registration forms are full of dead people, multiple personalities and wholly fictitious people.

"Even the most modest calculations show that the new registration of refugees -scheduled for May 2004 - will reduce their number by 30,000 people and will allow us to double state financial aid to them, which presently stands at seven US dollars a month - one tenth of the subsistence level in Georgia," said Astemirova.

Saakashvili used this as an argument for undertaking the new audit, promising that for those refugees who really exist, "state aid allowances will double by as early as summer 2004".

However, some in Georgia warn that the president's initiative will be hard to implement.

"Over the last few decades, Europe has had about 20 million refugees," said Dalila Khorava, deputy minister of health in the "government in exile". "They have colossal experience in registering those people, and it has been definitely proven that unless refugees are confined to a certain territory, it is impossible to determine their number with precision."

"Registration is not a panacea for all the problems," said Khorava. He said 80 per cent of the refugees from Abkhazia live below the poverty line, and instead of talking about doubling their meagre benefits, the government should work on a programme of social and economic rehabilitation for them.

Paata Zakareishvili, a prominent expert on Abkhazia in Georgia, said that, "I strongly doubt that the number of IDPs will go down sharply after the registration. My guess is it will be around 10 per cent, maximum 15 per cent."

Opinions amongst the refugees themselves also differ sharply. Liana Gugushvili said that she receives a benefit on behalf of her sister who now lives in Kiev and that she desperately needs this money. But Maro Avaliani, another IDP, told IWPR, "My family receives benefits for five people who are currently not in Georgia. Yes we will suffer, but order has to be imposed and I am ready to support the authorities in this."

Yulia Kharashvili, head of the Association of Internally Displaced Women organization, said, "It's not the number of refugees, not 14 or 28 lari that's important but greater attention and care from the government and international organizations."

Whatever its effects inside Georgia, the re-count plan is expected to bring the political benefit of winning trust with Abkhazia.

In an interview with IWPR last month, Leonid Lakerbaia, leader of Abkhazia's main opposition party Aitaira, said that if Georgia were to do a full audit of its IDPs, it would reduce tensions since the Abkhaz authorities would know how many displaced people Tbilisi wanted to return.

In recent weeks, several Georgian government officials have made conciliatory statements about the Abkhazia dispute, saying they want to "re-establish lost trust" and "find compromises".

The key figure in this change of thinking is Georgia's new minister for conflict resolution, Giorgi Khaindrava. Khaindrava, a documentary film-maker by profession, was in charge of the city of Sukhumi in the early days of the war and had a good reputation among many Abkhaz. However, he fell out with the Georgian government at the time and distanced himself from the issue until he was given his present post in the new cabinet.

Konstantin Zhgenti, special envoy for the Georgian foreign ministry said that Khaindrava had consulted widely and was working hard on a new overall strategy to resolve the conflict.

One issue still hanging in the balance is the fate of the Abkhazian "government-in-exile". It recently elected a new head, Temur Mzhavia, who replaced the notoriously hawkish Tamaz Nadareishvili. The change may have headed off calls for the whole structure to be disbanded.

Mzhavia himself, though elected by the "government-in-exile", was widely seen as Saakashvili's candidate. He told IWPR, "I strongly disagree with my predecessor, and I believe that a peaceful settlement is the only option for resolving the conflict."

However, no one expects there to be any progress in resolving the dispute before Abkhazia holds its own presidential election in October, and while another, more pressing crisis is unresolved.

"At this stage, the Georgian government simply has not got the time to resolve the Abkhazia question, because all its attention is absorbed by a crisis in another region of Georgia - Ajaria," said David Darchiashvili, an expert with the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development.

Gocha Khundadze is deputy head of the Abkhazian Television and Radio Company operating in Tbilisi.

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