Georgia: the exiles’ election

Tbilisi, Georgia (openDemocarcy) – Less than six months are left before Georgia’s parliamentary election, and a heated contest is expected. The parties of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition have decided to run independently, while several opposition parties are driving hard for public support.

Yet across the country, pessimism reigns. Nowhere is it felt more strongly than among Georgia’s 265,000 internally displaced people (IDPs), who largely hail from the now de-facto states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Ethnic cleansing during the wars of the 1990s and later led to Georgian inhabitants of these territories fleeing for their lives. Poorly-integrated into wider society, many IDPs’ hopes for a brighter future have been dashed by successive governments and their failed promises to improve living standards — or to return home.

That home remains out of reach. Abkhazia and South Ossetia seceded from Georgia during two vicious conflicts of the early 1990s, with more than a little help from Soviet, then Russian, forces. As a result, Georgia lost 20% of its territory, and now considers the two regions to be under Russian occupation.

Home away from home

Outside the city of Kutaisi in western Georgia stands the Hotel Khvamli. It’s Soviet-era behemoth – worn-out, old, even a little creepy. Nonetheless, at least 80 refugee families call this place home. Old sanatoriums, schools or hotels like this are often the only option for families displaced by the conflict in Abkhazia more than 20 years ago.

Some were luckier: they found jobs, new houses, and new lives. Rusudan, 56, isn’t among them. She’s been a guest of Hotel Khvamli for over 23 years, living with eight of her relatives in a room of just 13 square metres.

In 2013, the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) found that 45% of IDPs (from both Abkhazia and South Ossetia) had failed to improve their way of life since being displaced. Many still live in poverty, hoping that Georgia’s government will notice and help them.

The Soviet-era Hotel Khvamli outside Kutaisi in western Georgia is home to around 80 IDP families.The politicians do turn up at Hotel Khvamli, says Rusudan. Indeed, Georgia’s IDPs are a deep wound in national pride — politicians can’t be seen to ignore them. But the resentment here runs deep: over the nine years of Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) government and then four years of the current Georgian Dream (GD) coalition, locals say that politicians’ interest has been “preliminary” at best. They rock up before an election with photo-ops, praise and promises, but they never deliver.

In the parliamentary election of 2012, people here say they voted for Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire businessman architect of the Georgian Dream coalition who remains its power behind the throne. But the IDPs appeared to have no place in Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream; the government in Tbilisi failed them yet again.

Georgia’s upcoming elections are scheduled for 8 October. IDPs, who make up six percent of the country’s population, are weighing up their options.

They’re unsure who deserves their vote – assuming anybody does at all.

Georgia in its region.  Image Source: TUBS

Georgia in its region.
Image Source: TUBS

Guests at Hotel Khvamli

The plumbing system has been broken at Hotel Khvamli for two months now. Sewage leaks into the garden and across the first two floors.

“We can’t do anything about it on our own,” Rusudan tells me. She and her neighbours have approached the local municipality for help almost every day, but in vain.

”The elderly have given up, and go with the flow of fate”. Dodo, a refugee from Abkhazia, at Hotel Khvamli.The local authorities asked government officials in the capital, Tbilisi, to intervene. “Tbilisi sent back an answer a few weeks later rejecting to finance [a solution to the problem]. The reason [they gave] was that it is too expensive. They promised to grant three points to each family living here, but at the local municipality we were told that we wouldn’t be granted any points. I don’t see any other ways to solve this,” Rusudan explains.

The Georgian government has developed a point-based system for supporting socially vulnerable families, including refugees. These kula (Georgian: “points”) are allocated after social workers evaluate the family’s predicament and its needs. The poorer a family, the more points they receive. A family with a high number might theoretically be given a new apartment.

Rusudan doesn’t have enough kula. Neither does her neighbour Shorena, who came to join us. Shorena, a refugee from Bichvinta, Abkhazia, is divorced, and lives here with her three sons and mother. She notes that over the past 23 years, only one family at Hotel Khvamli has been granted new accommodation via the kula system — due to the fact that two family members were disabled.

The families living at Khvamli have agreed to stay here, but only if the government finally registers their rooms in their names, and promises to refurbish the place. In the 1990s, many ramshackle properties that housed refugees were sold off at a symbolic price to private individuals, residents and all. The government distanced itself from its responsibilities in maintaining the building, washing its hands of the many problems.

“The owners bought those hotels together with us,” remarks Rusudan. “I know the owner personally – he’s an ordinary guy, he even has debts like us. How can we ask him to refurbish the entire hotel? There’s no point,” she sighs.

“Social benefits for the people!” reads this UNM banner on Shorena’s balcony at Hotel Khvamli.Any visit to a refugee dormitory like this soon becomes an occasion. Once residents learn that a journalist has arrived, everybody has a story to tell.

Shorena and her neighbours guide me through the dark, damp corridors. On the upper floors, the roofs leak and there are holes in the floors. Hotel Khvamli would be perilous without an experienced guide.

Over the past 23 years, local government has only “refurbished” the building on one occasion. This meant changing a few light-bulbs and installing a new front door.

There are no bathrooms at Hotel Khvamli. A common bathroom has been set up on the first floor: a gloomy room separated by lurid canvasses, almost roofless and fiercely cold in winter.

A few residents on the ground floor have tried to grow vegetables and flowers. Upon leaving the building, I meet Archil Kordzaia. Archil asks me to once again mention the damaged sewage system. The waste seeps down into his family’s room, and his grandchildren are getting infections, and there are fears of hepatitis or even typhoid fever breaking out. These sewage pipes leak in the hot weather. The kids here are afraid of summer.

“I won’t hide it. We hoped for a better future”

Khvamli isn’t Tbilisi. When it comes to poor families in the regions like these, Georgia’s political parties do not usually win them over with “pro-western” credentials or talk of “Euro-Atlantic integration”. Rusudan isn’t planning on taking a short tourist trip to Europe after Georgia’s visa liberalisation agreement with the EU. Her concerns are in the here and now.

I hadn’t even mentioned politics before Kordzaia began to curse the government. He sees no point in voting. As if to illustrate the point, Kordzaia took me to meet Dodo, who’s spent more than a decade living alone here in Khvamli on her pension. Dodo, a refugee from Abkhazia, can barely walk or talk.

“Look at her! Her family’s forgotten about her, and the government doesn’t care about her. What kind of life is that?” asks Kordzaia.

Rusudan and Shorena did vote. In fact, they “confess” in 2012 they voted for the ruling Georgian Dream coalition.

“They always tell us whom to vote for, but no, sir, not this time” says Tina, 70, from Tserovani.“I won’t hide it. We hoped for a better future,” says Rusudan. “Saakashvili failed to do anything for us, so we hoped that Ivansihvili would do better.”

Georgian Dream’s promises were grand, and they were many. That was the appeal. Poor Georgians from small villages in the south, from the mining town of Chiatura or refugee camps, like Rusudan, began to have hope.

“Don’t get me wrong. I never expected someone knocking on my door and giving me money. No, I thought he would create jobs. Now they’re even shutting down some factories. Some of my relatives go to Turkey for occasional work on low-paid jobs.”

A model town

A week after visiting Khvamli, I arrived in Tserovani, north of the capital. It’s the main settlement for refugees from the Tskhinvali region, who make up 95% of its population. Their homes are now under control of separatist South Ossetia, and Tserovani’s inhabitants were resettled here after the Russo-Georgian war in 2008. The authorities had been better prepared; these cottages were constructed and designed specially for them.

Tserovani is just 30 minutes’ drive from Tbilisi. It’s an orderly place; about 800 small white cottages with scarlet roofs stand in parallel rows with small gardens in front. There are at three main factories, of which only two still work.

While Tserovani’s men occasionally get hired for part-time labour, a permanent job is quite rare here. Most IDPs scrape by either on their pension or allowance for socially vulnerable people.

It’s tough to keep warm in Tserovani. Gas bills are higher and harder to pay in winter, and there are no trees in the area which could be used for firewood. Nevertheless, Georgia’s government had promised to help pay for the residents’ heating.

Tserovani IDP camp, just 30 minutes’ drive from Tbilisi, has home to refugees from South Ossetia since 2008.Unpaid bills have meant that scores of residents have had their gas cut off. On 5 April, roughly 20 refugees from Tserovani held a picket outside the Ministry of Justice in Tbilisi over the issue.

It was a poor turnout. Rusudan Gigauri, a refugee from the Tskhinvali region, told me that some couldn’t afford to travel to the capital. Others were afraid that their allowance would be cut if they were seen protesting, sometimes a fear among Georgia’s poorer citizens.

Rusudan explained that under the previous government, refugees used to receive vouchers for gas and electricity bills in winter. When their bills increased, Georgian Dream promised that they would “forgive” the new expenses.

Nothing of the sort happened. Rusudan, for example, was faced with a debt of 1,200 Lari (£370). She withdrew five months’ worth of her monthly allowance of 45 Lari (£14) and covered part of the bill. The rest was covered with a bank loan. These days, paying it back requires all her allowance.

During their protest, the Tserovani refugees presented a list of Georgian Dream’s broken promises. Solve them, they told the government, and we’ll vote for you again.

“We were mad at the last government,” remarked protester Marekhi Akhlouri, “so we thought Bidzina [Ivanishvili] would change our world. Now things are even worse.”

Tserovani villagers protest rising gas bills and broken promises outside the justice ministry in Tbilisi, April 2016.The protest was fruitless. Minister of energy Kakhi Kaladze denied that the government ever promised to waiver or assist with the villagers’ gas bills, and passed the buck on to the ministry of refugees.

Tina, the oldest of the protesters at 70, had simply given up. “I never listen to anyone,” she began. “They always tell us whom to vote for, but no, sir, not this time.”

The exiles’ election

Georgia’s recent governments, whether UNM or Georgian Dream, have failed the IDPs of Hotel Khvamli and Tserovani. Particularly for refugees from Abkhazia, returning home is an daily dream, but today’s worries are a priority. They have to deal with bills or make sure their children get a good education.

The elderly have given up, and go with the flow of fate. The younger generation of IDPs, many of whom have never seen their parents’ homelands, try to move into the cities, or even dream of studying abroad.

In recent years territorial integrity (that is, retaking Abkhazia and South Ossetia) consistently featured among top three pressing issues for Georgians in opinion polls for NDI. The issue took second place before 2011 and before 2015 – third. This year, just 23% of Georgians think that territorial integrity is the most important national issue, and it now comes in fifth place. Jobs, pensions, and price hikes are considered more important.

Face-to-face with the authorities. Tserovani villagers’ protest, Tbilisi, April 2016.Voters on 8 October have a more diverse choice than ever before. There are almost 200 parties registered throughout Georgia, and to top it off, the five parties of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition have decided to run separately.

It’s not that refugees don’t organise themselves. Last May, Devnilta Partia(Georgian: “the refugees’ party”) was founded by IDP activist Lela Guledani on a platform defending the community’s interests, and was the first of its kind in the country. It held a number of protests and press conferences in the first months, but as Guledani herself admitted, only IDPs living in and around Tbilisi were able to attend. Unfortunately, Guledani and her colleagues were barely able to campaign or build support in places like Kutaisi or areas near Abkhazia where many IDPs live. Devnilta has since faded into irrelevance, and it’s not even clear if Guledani plans to run in elections this October.

Georgia’s displaced people have other political organisations, too. Ap’khazta Kreba, or the Assembly of Abkhazians, was founded in September 2014 to unite the 30 or so small unions of refugees from the breakaway region. Led by lawyer and IDP activist Malkhaz Pataraia, it’s probably the most active.

Ap’khazta Kreba was out in force on Georgian Language Day on 14 April, protesting the Abkhazian de-facto government’s ban on Georgian-language teaching in the Gali region. The majority of people in Gali, Abkhazia’s southernmost region, are ethnic Georgians, many from the Mingrelian sub-ethnicity.

The long road home. Road sign outside Tbilisi indicating the way to Sukhumi, capital of Abkhazia. Photo CC: Tsov / Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

Apkhazta Kreba is perceived as pro-UNM. Its members are often seen at UNM-organised rallies, such as during the protests against the Georgian government’s business with Russian state gas firm Gazprom in early March. Last June, the movement even held a joint press conference with the opposition party, making a vague promise to found a new organisation for IDPs.

As members of Apkhazta Kreba distributed flyers and put up posters across Tbilisi to advertise the meeting, a UNM member of parliament urged them to stick posters on the glass palace owned by “you know who”. Of course, everybody knows who: Bidzina Ivanishvili’s residence overlooking Tbilisi is seen as the clearest symbol of his role in the country’s politics. It’s a role which some would like to end once and for all.

Unlike IDP’s hopes for a return to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, that may not be such a distant dream. In the last opinion poll conducted before Georgia’s parties are to declare their electoral platforms, only 15% said they would vote for Georgian Dream if the election was held tomorrow. Meanwhile, 13% said they would vote for the UNM and 6% for the Free Democrats, a party which left the GD coalition in late 2014.More tellingly, 38% did not know who they would vote for, and 6%, like Archil Kordzaia, would not vote for anyone.

Georgia’s voters, whether IDPs or not, are greatly disillusioned. It’s hard to tell what party can inspire them once again.

With a resolution of the disputes over Abkhazia and South Ossetia a distant prospect, Georgia’s displaced people can only hope to build another home away from home – whoever is in power.

This report prepared by MARI NIKURADZE for openDemocarcy.