Opinion: Georgia aspires to end Russian occupation


TBILISI, Georgia — Two years ago this Sunday, as Russian forces poured over Georgia’s internationally recognized borders into the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and beyond, a humanitarian crisis began to unfold.

Georgian civilians were driven from their homes and villages by advancing Russian troops. Although the war lasted only a few weeks, the suffering continues for thousands of Georgian citizens who remain unable to return home, as well as for those who continue to live under Russian occupation.

The European Union-brokered cease-fire that brought an end to open conflict between Russia and Georgia required Russia to work toward the safe and dignified return of all internally displaced persons and refugees to their homes. The cease-fire rejected the use of force as a means of altering borders in 21st century Europe and required Russian forces to withdraw to their pre-war positions and to respect Georgia’s territorial sovereignty.

As French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner recently made clear, "Russia has failed to meet certain paragraphs of the agreement.” But this cannot keep the government and the people of Georgia from working toward the goals laid out in the cease-fire.

In the two years since the war, the government of Georgia has made great progress in the necessary work of rebuilding our country and our economy and developing the democratic institutions that will sustain both. We have also embarked on a bold plan for reintegrating South Ossetia and Abkhazia back into Georgian democracy, even as Russia has moved to make permanent its illegal occupation of Georgian territory.

Though the government of Georgia does not control Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the international community recognizes the two areas as occupied Georgian territory — and we recognize that all those who live there, and all those who wish to return to their homes there, are entitled to the same rights and protections of Georgian citizenship as their compatriots living outside these occupied territories.

To this end — and in concert with civil-society organizations, NGOs, foreign governments and international organizations — the Georgian government has laid out a strategy for building economic and social partnerships between the populations living on both sides of the current boundaries. Through this program, and recognizing that there can be no military solution to this problem, we aim to achieve the voluntary reunification of communities that are now divided by checkpoints and barbed wire.

We will soon establish a Cooperation Agency to promote business development in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and in the adjacent areas of Georgia. We will help integrate them into international markets by establishing a quality-control lab to certify local products to international standards. And we will establish a private fund to aid joint ventures across the dividing lines in order to support businesses that might otherwise have difficulty attracting investment.

Infrastructure also will be developed, with funds set aside for the rehabilitation of roads in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as the establishment of bus service between them and Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, and a passenger ferry between the Black Sea ports of Batumi and Sokhumi.

We have even proposed providing free internet service to the whole of Abkhazia, together with free laptops to primary-school students there (as will be standard elsewhere in Georgia). Our plan also would grant residents of both areas equal access to Georgian universities and scholarship programs for study abroad.

These are just some of the programs that will be established in order to prevent communities separated by this conflict from being permanently severed economically, socially and politically from Georgia and from the international community.

There is no question that the path to reunification will be a long and difficult one, and we harbor no illusions about the challenges we face in implementing our engagement strategy. But it is the responsibility of the Georgian government to make every effort to engage and support its citizens in Abkhazia and South Ossetia — not only to prevent their economic and political isolation, but to speed the day when internally displaced people and refugees can return to their homes.

Still, Georgia and the international community must continue to stand firm on the principle that borders cannot be changed through violence and aggression. Such methods in past centuries brought nothing but war, instability and tragedy.

What we aspire to is the end of occupation, the peaceful reunification of our country and the day when all citizens of Georgia — regardless of their ethnicity — can live together in peace and prosperity, determining their own future, and assuming their rightful place in a free and democratic Europe.

Temuri Yakobashvili is Georgia’s Deputy Prime Minister and State Minister for Reintegration.