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Satellite Images to Push Abkhazia Refugee Claims

The Georgians want to use satellite technology to register refugees’ old homes in Abkhazia.
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The Georgian government plans to use detailed satellite photographs to allow refugees to lay claim to properties they owned in Abkhazia before it broke away from rule by Tbilisi in the early Nineties.



The administration in Abkhazia has dismissed the scheme as a publicity stunt that will have no real impact.



Refugees from Abkhazia and another conflict zone, South Ossetia, have been flocking to the ministry for refugees and resettlement in Tbilisi to register the homes they lost in the wars of 1990-93. Their claims are been recorded as part of a programme launched by President Mikheil Saakashvili earlier this year, which represents an attempt to count both the refugees themselves and the homes they once lived in.



Lasha Bregadze, head of the ministry’s refugees department, describes the work as a unique project designed to support the property rights of displaced people.



“I am Nino Katsitadze and my address is Flat 78, No. 39 Agrba Street, Pitsunda, Gagra district,” said a woman who had waited an hour and a half to be seen at the ministry, giving her old address in Abkhazia. “Will you show me a photo of my house?”



The official taking down her details explained that the satellite pictures would only be available at a later date.



Ministry staff say the registration of refugees living in Tbilisi will be finished by next June next year, but the entire process could take up to five years.



The government intends to use satellite photography to identify and list all the properties, and will then draw maps showing the boundaries of each plot of land.



“This modern method will give an accurate description of each owner’s actual property holding and will provide them with incontestable photographic evidence,” said senior government official Giorgi Kheviashvili when he presented the programme.



The technology does not come cheap: photographing 100 square metres of land costs around 10,000 US dollars. The government is to set aside about 1.75 million dollars for the programme, and is using television and flyers posted up on public transport to urge people to register.



IWPR has learned that 100,000 refugees have filled in property declarations so far. International organisations estimate the total number of people displaced from Abkhazia at around 250,000.



Katsitadze, who lives with other refugees in Tbilisi’s Hotel Sakartvelo, welcomes the move, “The state should do its job, protect its citizens’ rights and prepare them for their return.”



She hopes to return with her 18-year-old son to the coastal town of Pitsunda, where she has a three-room flat. However, she has learned from relatives still in Abkhazia that the apartment has changed hands several times. “I was told that an Abkhaz family lived there at first, but then it was resold several times over,” she said.



Lasha Gvaramia, 27, has had his father’s property registered, but is pessimistic that it will actually be possible to reclaim it. “Although I had no problems registering, I don’t feel as if I now own any additional property,” he said. “Maybe we’ll go back there one day - who knows? But it’s unlikely to happen in the near future.”



Kheviashvili strikes a more optimistic note. “This is what Sukhumi is going to look like in 14 years,” he said, pointing to a huge picture of New York hanging in his office.



One of the Georgians’ aims is to put pressure on the Abkhazian authorities, which have allowed real estate owned by Georgians until 1993, when the conflict ended in de facto secession, to pass into other people’s hands.



Kheviashvili said a comprehensive map of Georgian-owned private assets in Abkhazia would be available on the internet by the end of this year. “We already have data on almost every house in Abkhazia,” he said. The website will list the owners’ names, and they will be able to view a picture of their home online.



He warned that any attempt by anyone other than these owners to acquire a property would be illegal under Georgian law.



In addition, he said, Georgia will hand over the property information to the European Court of Human Rights, “This will be presented in Strasbourg as incontestable proof that refugees’ property is being seized by citizens of another country. All the businessmen and oligarchs who are now buying assets there should be afraid. They have accounts in foreign banks, and if there’s a court ruling against them, they will have to pay up.”



Mamuka Areshadze, a political analyst in Tbilisi, said the scheme was a positive step that would allow Georgia to make its case internationally about properties lost in Abkhazia.



“If this programme is carried out properly and thoroughly, the Abkhaz will put be in a difficult position, and the West will be better able to understand both our position and the situation in which the refugees find themselves,” he said.



It is not always a straightforward matter to submit enough evidence to put in a claim, Zurab Gobechia, for example, left everything behind, including his passport, when he fled the burning city of Sukhumi. He has no documents to give to the ministry to prove that his two-storey house belongs to him.



“I was told to go to court,” he told IWPR. “I imagine this will take up a lot of time and nerves. I hope that I won’t be getting the documents in vain.”



In Abkhazia itself, officials and members of the public say the Georgian programme will have no impact there.



The administration’s foreign minister, Sergei Shamba, dismissed the threat of an action in the European human rights court, and said his government too had claims to press against the Georgian government.



He said the damage Abkhazia had suffered during the war used to be put at 13 billion dollars, but the estimate was now higher. “If Tbilisi officially submits property claims to us, we will announce claims of our own,” said Shamba.



“For the money, the refugees could get decent housing in Georgia. But I would stress that the property issue is not on the agenda of the Georgian-Abkhaz negotiating process. All the more so since negotiations are stalled because of the situation in the Kodori Gorge, and we don't know when they will resume.”



After the conflict, the Abkhaz authorities took homes that until then been Georgian-owned and gave them to families who had lost their own properties in the fighting. Until recently, these “trophy houses”, as they are known, changed hands at lower prices than other kinds of property. In the last two years, however, the prices of these houses has begun rising, as Abkhazia has become more self-confident and this kind of real estate has begun to look like a better long-term bet.



Saida Khishba, who runs an estate agency, is dismissive of the Georgian initiative. “This new situation definitely has to do with economic reasons rather than political ones,” she said. “The [unresolved] Georgian-Abkhaz conflict is currently at a point where there’s no chance of Georgian refugees returning to Sukhum or Gagra in the foreseeable future. In theory, the only way that could happen would be through a new war.



“If Sukhum were to be captured by Georgian forces all of a sudden Sukhum, you can be sure no one would ask the Abkhaz where they acquired their properties – they’d just become refugees.”



Nana Tomaradze is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi. Inal Khashig, co-editor of the Panorama newspaper, contributed to this article from Abkhazia.

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