Georgia’s internally displaced persons (IDPs) have faced an ongoing struggle for rights and recognition in Georgia since being forced to flee Abkhazia or South Ossetia during the wars in the early 90s. Over a quarter of a million Georgians displaced from Abkhazia and South Ossetia have retained IDP status. While some 20 per cent reside in state-owned collective centres and thus visibly on the fringes of mainstream society, the majority live in private accommodation with host families, friends, in rental properties or have purchased their own homes.
Despite improved policies adopted by the Saakashvili government, most of the displaced population continues to be affected by high rates of unemployment and a lack of access to housing, health, education and social services, to a greater extent than the mainstream Georgian society. In the face of a general assumption that IDPs living in the private sector are better integrated, some are actually in great need of support and particularly neglected, since they do not benefit from aid programmes provided in collective housing. IDPs are also politically marginalised with insufficient opportunities for participation in decisions affecting their lives. IDPs therefore, have often come to feel powerless and apathetic about their situation.
Marina Elbakidze works as a coordinator of Synergy, a network of IDP organisations from different parts of Georgia – originally established with support from Conciliation Resources – that initiates and facilitates IDP mobilisation and advocates for IDP rights at a local, regional and national level. Conciliation Resources spoke to Marina about the current situation for displaced communities and the way IDP issues have been presented in the Georgian media over the past four years.
An improving situation
Marina believes that the situation for IDPs has improved over time, which is reflected in more adequate policies and more nuanced reporting in the Georgian media. Significant progress was made following parliamentary elections in 2012, when the Georgian Dream coalition, led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, defeated President Mikheil Saakashvili’s ruling United National Movement (UNM).
The most significant outcome of this was the new bill on IDPs, which takes into account a number of recommendations made by Synergy, including to focus more attention on vulnerable IDPs living in private accommodation. Marina attributes the implementation of these changes to the years of active engagement by Synergy with opposition parties as well as the Government:
Even up to one and a half years ago nobody would have dreamt that there could be a change of Government in this way; it was out of principle that the Synergy network would engage with all the different political parties. Obviously during a time when you have a clear monolithic leadership, the opposition parties are more keen to engage because they stand more to gain. And now these people are in Government, and we have a relationship with them.
However, despite the fortuitous turn in political events, Marina points out that IDPs still have the same problems, the biggest of which is the settlement issue. She claims there is still a large number of IDPs who do not have their own flat and many IDPs are still living in collective centres in small rooms with economic and social problems. The level of unemployment is also higher amongst the IDPs than the rest of the society. A key factor of this, she explains, is that Georgia is under the rule of a very centralised state so local governments do not have the political authority, and have limited financial resources to invest in improving living conditions for the IDPs:
They do see the problems, but they can’t sort them. This is where the Synergy network steps in and helps build relationships between IDPs and the local authorities.
Connected to all this is how the Georgian mainstream media portrays IDP issues in a negative and problematic light. In some instances, Marina says media coverage has even been “confrontational”:
Basically, it’s painting the picture that the ethnic Georgians living in Abkhazia cannot lead a life because of the pressure from the authorities and the Russians. Yet, in the territory controlled by the Georgian government, the displaced Georgians are also facing serious problems.
To assess the prevailing stereotypes of IDPs and the politicisation, Synergy undertook a Media Monitoring Project, which ran for four years and scanned the Georgian press for all stories covering IDPs. Throughout its duration it was observed that the frequency of news items on IDP issues rose considerably during the two parliamentary elections, which demonstrates the significance of these matters in politics.
Another noticeable trend that was picked up was how different ways in which issues were portrayed in different media organs reflected the political polarisation in Georgia: for instance, papers believed to be pro-government would paint a more positive picture of the situation regarding IDPs than those affiliated with the political opposition. Sometimes different articles may give contradictory accounts on one and the same event. Marina also pointed out that although Georgian reporting with regards to the conflicts leaves a lot to be desired, over time it has become somewhat more nuanced and less confrontational, in particular after October 2012.
The Synergy network has positively influenced public perception of IDPs by producing a monthly supplement for one of Georgia’s most popular newspapers Rezonansi, thus sharing experiences and views of IDPs and activities accomplished by the network with a mainstream audience. Synergy also worked with radio and television where IDPs were given a platform to discuss approaches to dealing with displacement and with conflict together with politicians from different parties. In this context they presented themselves in a constructive way as problem-solvers. It was a difficult thing to achieve at the time, says Marina as only the opposition media was open to airing IDP issues, very seldom the state-controlled official media.
The main point of the Synergy network is to create opportunities for IDPs to solve their problems at a local level, and Synergy has been instrumental in changing the passive and “belligerent” stereotype of the IDP into that of a confident and active citizen. An IDP survey commissioned by Conciliation Resources which was undertaken in 2010 with the involvement of Synergy, was influential in demonstrating the IDPs’ predominantly peaceful attitude to conflict resolution. The Synergy network was initially established to help clear up misunderstandings over the conflict with a focus on peacebuilding. There have been activities between members of the network and local IDP communities to help them understand attitudes and views towards the conflict:
Our 2010 survey challenged the widespread stereotype that IDPs want to use force to return to Abkhazia. Nearly two thirds of respondents said they wouldn’t support a military resolution.
In reality, IDPs are not any more aggressive than other parts of the society, so it’s interesting how the media has helped to create such misleading perceptions, and then again challenged them. I believe the improvements in recent years can at least partly be attributed to the work of the Synergy network.