by Elizaveta Valieva
4 September 2007
Ossetian refugees are slow to take up a Georgian offer that could allow them to reclaim their old homes.
VLADIKAVKAZ, Russia | After years of waiting, thousands of refugees eking out a living in this south Russian city now have a way to reclaim their old houses in Georgia or to be compensated for their lost property.
Georgia took a dramatic step earlier this year toward reconciliation with ethnic Ossetians who fled the fighting between forces loyal to Tbilisi and South Ossetian separatists in the early 1990s. A long-awaited property restitution law for victims of the conflict finally took effect on 1 January.
But few if any of the estimated 50,000 Ossetian refugees just over the border in Russia have taken advantage of the option to reclaim their homes. More than six months after the law was enacted, the restitution scheme is frozen in limbo, stymied by South Ossetia’s reluctance to participate and by Ossetians’ fears of returning to Georgia.
“Refugees don’t trust the law or Georgian authorities,” says Oleg Teziev, chairman of Civic Initiative, a Vladikavkaz-based group working on behalf of the refugees. “Most of them have settled down in North Ossetia. Their children go to Russian schools and are being raised in another cultural environment.”
The restitution law allows those who lost property during the conflict, Ossetians and Georgians alike, to reclaim their houses if they can prove legal ownership. If the property is damaged they are entitled to adequate compensation or equivalent housing. Georgia promised to enact such legislation as a condition of joining the Council of Europe in 1999, but little happened until last year when the government drafted the law with advice from the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission on legal affairs.
“BASIS FOR NATIONAL HATRED”
Sixteen years ago, Givi Bogiev and his family fled the Kareli district of Georgia for a rootless life in the refugee hostels of Vladikavkaz, the capital of the Russian republic of North Ossetia–Alania.
“I don’t see any outlook for the future in Georgia either for my children or for myself,” Bogiev says now. “The problem is not just the weak economic circumstances and that my children have forgotten the Georgian language. Tomorrow others can come to power and everything can be repeated.”
Ossetians in Georgia began demanding the union of South and North Ossetia within a Russian state in 1988, at the close of the communist era. Separatist sentiments evolved into tense standoffs with Georgians seeking independence from the Soviet Union and eventually turned into armed clashes between South Ossetian separatists and Georgian forces in 1990–1992. Those conflicts left an estimated 2,000 dead and 100,000 homeless. Many of those refugees were ethnic Ossetians living outside the territory of the breakaway region who fled across the border into North Ossetia. Tens of thousands remain there, and ethnic Georgians now inhabit the refugees’ former homes.
Bogiev describes how his family members were forced out of their house at gunpoint and robbed of their car and money. Soon the house was occupied by a man who still lives there. Bogiev says he returned to Georgia to try to reclaim his house, but his application to local authorities came to nothing. He says the man living in his house threatened to kill him.
The hostel where Bogiev’s family now lives is primitive, like all the other places where they have stayed since fleeing Georgia. There is no hot water and only one bathroom, a toilet, and a kitchen for each floor of about 15 families.
As a former commander of South Ossetian forces and “prime minister” of the unrecognized territory, Teziev knows as well as anyone why many Ossetians like Bogiev are loath to return to Georgia.
“The conflict in South Ossetia continues and if armed conflict breaks out, [Ossetians] could again be subject to violence because of their ethnic affiliation,” Teziev says. “The nationalist-minded part of the Georgians is not ready for reintegration of the Ossetians, and officials don’t wish or are unable to fight against this mood.”
Teziev says there is another reason many refugees don’t want to return: the new restitution law itself.
“The law indicates that if a refugee from any of the communities affected by the conflict is awarded restitution of property now occupied by a Georgian citizen, the person now living there will also be entitled to monetary compensation,” Teziev says. “Will the man who has put roots down for several years and is an innocent buyer want to lose this property? This will lay a new basis for national hatred.”
In addition, returning refugees can claim a one-time benefit of 1,500 lari (about 659 euros) for every family member, head of the Georgian Intelligence Service Anna Zhvania says.
SOUTH OSSETIAN COLD SHOULDER
In theory, with the 1 January enactment of the law Georgia is now ready to begin handling restitution claims. But the strained relations between Tbilisi and South Ossetia’s unrecognized government in Tskhinvali have blocked the law’s realization.
“The Ossetian side’s lack of participation in the restitution process restricts implementation of the law and reduces the number of people who can actually claim their rights and solve their problems. This leads to an unequal situation between conflict victims,” Georgian Deputy Justice Minister Kote Vardzilashvili said in an e-mail interview last year.
A number of factors could explain Tskhinvali’s leeriness about the law, political scientist Vyacheslav Tseluyko believes. First, Ossetian separatists are reluctant to take part in a system run under the law of Georgia, the state from which they claim to have seceded. They also feel the law places them at a disadvantage because their side will make up only one-third of the tripartite commission that is to make decisions on each claim, with Georgian officials and international organizations making up the rest. Finally, they fear claims against lost property from ethnic Georgians who fled South Ossetia.
For Georgia, on the other hand, “enactment of this law and the start of the restitution process is part of a struggle to change the orientation of the Ossetian population from pro-Russian to pro-Georgian,” Tseluyko says.
Many South Ossetians also say they doubt Tbilisi’s ability to pay for restitution.
“The government of Georgia should understand that implementation of this law is connected with serious financial expenses. At this time the Georgian budget is unable to cope with [the costs],” says Boris Chochiev, the co-chairman of the Joint Control Commission from the South Ossetian side. Tasked with monitoring the situation in the region, the commission is made up of representatives from Georgia, Russia, and North and South Ossetia.
“The financial and economic instability of Georgia is obvious,” Chochiev says.
A Georgian official contests this. According to Zaur Abashvili, head of the legal acts department of the Georgian Justice Ministry, several years ago the state budget would have been inadequate for the needs of restitution but now it is robust enough to fund the plan.
“In 2007, the budget was about 4 billion lari [1.8 billion euros]. With this we can easily finance a lot of social and economical projects,” Abashvili said.
RADICAL NEW APPROACH
North Ossetia, the Russian republic whose population of 700,000 was swelled by as many as 100,000 because of refugees from Georgia, is more enthusiastic about the restitution law. Still, officials there have their own reservations.
The North Ossetian co-chairman of the Joint Control Commission, Murat Tkhostov, says the law has the potential to significantly improve the levels of trust among the parties to the conflict, including North Ossetia, where most of the people the law is meant to help live.
“But how can North Ossetia take part in the implementation of this law if there are no international acts regulating this question?” he asks.
In the absence of agreement between Georgia and Russia or Georgia and South Ossetia, his republic cannot take part in the law, Tkhostov says. Such participation could take the form of an information center for refugees and assistance with paperwork for those unable to visit Georgia.
“But it isn’t important that the law has some flaws,” says Tbilisi native Valery Valiev, an eyewitness to events in Georgia at the end of the Soviet era and now a businessman in Moscow.
Valiev believes the passage of the restitution law marks Tbilisi’s ability to fulfill its commitments and the law’s effective implementation will bring benefits to the Georgian-Ossetian relationship – even though the law will bring the Ossetians into collision with Georgia’s new policy.
“It isn’t important that the law concentrates on the people who lost their property and [that] those who were forced to sell their property for half price aren’t mentioned in this law in spite of the fact that they are in the majority,” Valiev says. “All this dwindles against the background that the Georgian authorities are taking a radically different approach to problem-solving.”
Tbilisi’s softer strategy, however, does not seem to be winning over many of those who fled Georgia for North Ossetia 15 years ago or more.
Liana Elbakidze was a teacher of Russian at School No. 3 in Kareli. Now she and her mother live in Vladikavkaz in the same hostel as Givi Bogiev. She remembers the day in February 1991 when the bodies of four Georgians killed in South Ossetia were brought to the town hospital.
“That day all Ossetian doctors were driven out of the hospital,” she says. “Next morning when I came to work I saw the Georgian teachers and pupils standing at the school entrance and stopping Ossetian teachers and pupils and even the principal from coming in.”
Ksenia Kokoeva, Liana’s mother, describes how a Georgian mob that burst into their house in Elbakiani village hacked and shot her husband to death.
“I don’t know a single refugee who wishes to return to Georgia,” Liana says. “It’s impossible now. Too much pain and too many changes.”
Elizaveta Valieva is the editor of the online newspaper Ossetia.ru.