People Just Trying to Survive: The Everyday Reality Brief from EUMM Head

They have been deployed here for almost ten years now and perhaps know far better than their Brussels-based, suited up colleagues of the needs and hardships of the people that live on either side of the so-called administrative boundary line, or, as we call them, the barbed wires of creeping occupation. GEORGIA TODAY and Panorama TV Show spoke to the head of European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) in Georgia, Mr. Kestutis Jankauskas.

What’s the reality seen from EUMM’s perspective given what they do and observe on a daily basis? What’s the real, no political make-up situation when it comes to the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

It is difficult to fully assess the picture because as you know, the mission does not have access to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. People live there, people survive. Generally, the situation is peaceful and quiet, they say. It’s been eight years since the active conflict, rather long time, but not long enough to fully heal the wounds. Last year, we had a very tragic killing in Khurcha. I hope it was an isolated case. I think that our [EUMM] presence here helps keep the situation more manageable and quiet. People are trying to survive; survive the ongoing efforts of borderization which prevent connections and interactions between families and communities. Two checkpoints were closed recently, in Khurcha and Orsantia. There is not full freedom of movement, there is restricted access for people to farm their lands. It’s a tragedy. At Easter there is good tradition here to go to the region and visit the graves of your relatives. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. People get detained. There are children still crossing the ABL to get to school or kindergarten. People don’t know what to expect and are afraid of the unknown. As for the political aspect, the six-point peace plan is not fully implemented. We keep saying it every time we go to Geneva. Russian troops have not gone back to the positions held prior to the conflict.

Emphasis is always made on dialogue between the conflicting sides and the benefits of it. What good is dialogue when no involved side is willing to compromise?

Dialogue and talking is better than war and fighting. I think we all agree on that. Actually, you’ll never be able to achieve compromise without dialogue. You are right, politically the positions are still quite far apart. However, what are we to do about daily issues affecting the life of people on the ground? We believe there are plenty of possibilities to achieve compromise, meaning that it is necessary to talk to each other. How do you address detentions if you do not talk? How do you address criminality? People need medicine, people need irrigation for their land. Shouldn’t we talk about that? That’s why we’ve developed quite a structure here, starting with the Geneva Talks at the political level and ending with the Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism [IPRM]. Every month, people sit down around a table in Ergneti and discuss issues that are essential for the local population on both sides. We also have a hotline.

Explain IPRM. As of late, it seems we are reacting rather than preventing.

Prevention is prioritized. Ideally, we would like to prevent incidents. I know its unfair, as you can’t measure how much has been prevented. When things happen, everyone notices. Unfortunately, some things could not be prevented. But we do not see what we’ve managed to prevent. I’d say that colossal work is being done to prevent anything else from happening in the future. Our presence here means international representation and it helps in keeping the conflict from escalating. There are other conflicts in the region, if you compare that with very limited international presence, actually, the situation is much worse there. I would argue that presence of the mission contributes to defusing the situation somewhat.

Let’s take the Otkhozoria murder case. Do you think that could have been prevented? How?

The murder of Giga Otkhozoria was a tragic and unfortunate event. I strongly believe that this is an isolated event that happened as a result of a heated discussion. And these things, criminal things, happen in our countries as well. The police try to be everywhere but can’t control everything. Could it have been prevented? The way it happened, I don’t think this particular case could have, no.

Why? Part of Georgian society blames law enforcement for not being able to stop an armed man from crossing the border, be it de facto or de jure.

I fully understand their sentiments. Actually, a small security camera which was installed there helped us all to see what really happened.

The suspect had only managed to make it a few meters across the border. Could that have been prevented? These few meters covered in a few seconds? I don’t think so.

I would like to emphasize that after the unfortunate and tragic killing, the EUMM was present there round the clock. This is one thing.

Secondly, imagine if an armed Georgian law enforcement officer was there. I think we might have had even more victims. The last thing is to mention - tech. The small security camera has made a big difference.

Do you see Georgia fulfilling its Euro-Atlantic aspirations without solving its territorial conflicts first?

I wish I knew the exact answer to that question. To me, this is a little bit like the chicken and egg situation. Conflict-solving would definitely help the fulfillment of Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. Frankly, this is what’s happening right now; that’s what the Georgian government is trying to accomplish. Georgia is not alone. This mission and its presence on the ground here are not merely a symbolic gesture, but also a sign that the EU is interested in the stability and security of Georgia.

Do you see Abkhazians and Ossetians ever coming back to Georgia peacefully?

I think it’s Abkhazians and Ossetians who should answer that question. From my experience here, I believe that these people are first and foremost interested in living in peace and stability. They want their children to have good education, they want to have prosperity, jobs, income. I think eventually people will choose the side which serves their interests best. So, nothing is impossible, never say never but keep working on small practical issues and helping people. Everything starts with that.

To what degree do Sokhumi and Tskhinvali share this notion? Especially considering that in South Ossetia they are planning to hold a referendum on integration with Russia?

Well, none have magic wands, and we’ve tried everything else. The EU sticks to the political position of non-recognition, but the mission here does not deal with politics.

I would say there are two ways of moving forward with this issue. There are things which are out of reach and out of control for the Georgian government at the moment. Unfortunately, that is the situation today.

But there is still a lot that can be done, and it must be done for the people’s sake. Eventually, it is the people who make the choice where and how they want to live.

You should work on issues on which you can have an impact. Secondly, start with small issues that affect people’s daily lives: runaway cattle, medical services, visiting relatives; that’s their daily life, that’s what really matters for them.

Once these problems are fixed, they will be able to focus on other priorities. This is very important.

Vazha Tavberidze

01 June 2017 18:11
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