In depth


Interview with Ucha Nanuashvili

Ucha Nanuashvili, the director of the Human Rights Centre of Georgia came to Barcelona last Spring, having been invited by the Institut de Drets Humans de Catalunya to participate in its program about "Forgotten Conflicts". In this interview, he explains the difficulties that Human Rights organizations find when working in hostile environments; about the unique and inspiring campaign of apology towards the communities that have suffered an armed conflict; about the political and social situation in Georgia and about the perspectives of peace processes in the southern Caucasus.

Ucha Nanuashvili

Ucha Nanuashvili

Human Rights Centre is the main human rights organization in Georgia. Could you explain when it was created, how many people work in it and how is it financed?
We started in 1996. In those early days we were all volunteers and the funds were very limited and individual. In 1999 we started to receive financial backing for our human rights educational programs and now we also receive the European Commission's support. We have recently started a project to build a network of human rights organizations; it is a regional programme including the three sovereign states of the southern Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Comparatively, the situation in Georgia in this aspect is considerably better than in our neighboring countries. Our coordinator in Zugdidi, for instance, is (an) from Abkhazia (he is Georgian), and he is able to cross the border easily, but after the war he is facing serious problems with the security forces in Georgia: they think that he could be a spy, because he has regular contacts with both communities. This man is one of the 23 workers we now have in our offices in four cities. Most of them are Georgian citizens, but we also have people from other countries. That is the reason why our web page (this is web site of the (sorry campaign is in four different languages. If an Abkhaz and a Georgian meet, they normally speak in Russian and sometimes in Georgian. Both languages have a common origin: Caucasian, but you have to study in order to be able to understand them.

What are the roots of the conflict between Georgia and the neighboring regions of Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia?
Vladimir Putin, stating that he was acting in favor of Russian citizens, gave Russian passports to the Ossetians and the Abkhaz. This produced a confrontation in this region that led to an opposition against Georgia. Nowadays, the Abkhaz have their own identity cards, but 70-80% of the population in Abkhazia have double nationality; they are also Russian. On the other hand, Georgian society is very militarized. There is universal male conscription lasting one year, and this familiarizes the population with weapons. During the year 2007, the military budget reached 32% of the government's budget, while in 2008 and 2009 it has been stabilized at 22%. We used to have a Ministry for reintegration (formerly known as the Ministry for conflict resolution), with a ridiculous budget, 300.000 dollars per annum, compared to the one billion dollars the Ministry of Defense gets. The problem is that the budget is absolutely confidential. Only five members of parliament have access to the final budget, which is not public. This is only legitimized by the "exceptional" situation I mentioned before and most of the money probably goes straight into Saakhasvili(let's use Government, as Saakashvili is not only one person in this process)'s pockets. War is the only chance for Saakhasvili's political survival and to keep him in power. This explains his interest in preserving this situation, he wants to maintain the feeling that war may be impending and that an emergency government is necessary. Acting, obviously, with emergency measures. Respect for human rights is not a priority when you manage to convince the population that war may be starting any moment. In this sense, the government is spending a lot of money on military equipment for the Georgian army.

What was the situation like in Georgia after the war? Are you optimistic regarding the peace process?
Even though it was horrible, a positive consequence of the war was that Georgian society realized that they had work to do and that they had to oppose war if they did not want it to happen again. In a certain sense, it has helped to prevent other wars from breaking out. Regarding the future, in January 2013 elections will be held in Georgia, even though they could be advanced.

What role does the Geneva process play in the peace process?
It is a governmental initiative. The representatives of the Georgian and Russian government (and Ossetian de facto government) met in order to try and elaborate a common agenda in reaction to the consequences of the war and to advance in the peace process. But both sides use the conflict in their own interest and, without international organizations or a civil society in these countries, if (a) great pressure is not applied, the process will not prosper. I am talking about an internal pressure, but also about an external one. Independent media has to be strengthened. This becomes obvious if you consider that there is a part of the population who believe that Georgia won the last war against Russia. There is no independent nationwide television in Georgia, and the level of propaganda is very high. And there are some independent newspapers, but they have a very low circulation, normally less than 5.000 copies. And the opposition parties are now stronger than a few years ago. Saakashvili lost some of his popularity after the war. But only a small part of the opposition parties support our "Forgiveness campaign". Most of them support quite the opposite. And the civil society is very weak.

Has this situation been the norm since Georgia's independence?
No. Right before the Rose Revolution, civil society was strong in Georgia and we even had some relatively strong independent media. This was a Georgian particularity that distinguished us from our neighbors, like Azerbaijan or Armenia. Now the situation is the exact opposite. Most of the independent media has disappeared, some members of the civil society have been co-opted by the government and they are now MPs, ministers, etc. And there has also been a strategic miscalculation by foreign countries and international organizations, who decided to give their support to the government and not to the country as a whole. For instance, many human rights programs funded by foreigners stopped, because it was stated that human rights no longer needed promoting. All this allowed the government to become more authoritarian. After a few years the donors realized that a lot of human rights promotion had to be undertaken and they started new programs, but it was already too late.

One of the most interesting projects of the Human Rights Centre is the "Sorry" campaign that you mentioned before. What is it about exactly?
This is an old idea; it has its origins in the first demonstrations against the war in Abkhazia in 1992-1993, even though we formally started it in 2007. When Georgia started the war in Abkhazia, we wanted Georgian society to be aware of the negative consequences brought upon them in their own name, and that is why we organize public awareness campaigns through our web page, with information and documentation about those years, photographic exhibitions of the conflict and other activities both in Georgia and in Abkhazia, in order to recover the truth about what happened and to apologize to the victims of the conflict. It is a tough task, because Georgian society is very militarized. Many organizations and political parties called us to state their radical opposition to the "Sorry" campaign. They even held demonstrations during our public events and they also tried to wreck our main office. We have received death threats and all sorts of intimidations, even from representatives of our own government. The situation after the war is slightly different, because we used to be the only organization against the war and the militarization of society and now we are not the only ones. We have the support of small independent radios, like Radio Liberty, and from digital media. Society is starting to consider that it is possible to control the rebel regions with means other than military ones. Now we have more support. In 2007, society as a whole was against our campaigns, and even most of the NGOs would not sign our manifesto against war or support our "Sorry" campaign. There are now more people giving us support, even in Georgian society. And we have a very positive response from the Abkhaz population, especially from those living abroad. After the war, thousands of Abkhaz migrated to places like Germany, Russia and the USA.

Do you think that the position of the EU and the USA has varied after the war? What do you think could be done in Georgia during the Spanish presidency of the European Union?
Until not long ago, Georgian society would see the European Union and the United States in a very similar light. Now there is the perception that there are differences in the way they act. But, answering your question: yes, it has changed, especially in the United States. The Americans had given their full support to Saakashvili; now they are more cautious. They are trying to support all of the country and not only its president. The new Obama administration has brought a new ambassador and a completely new team to the embassy; these changes are seen in a very positive light. In the past, Saakashvili could rely on a full support that he has now –fortunately- lost. And regarding the European involvement in Georgia, it has increased in the recent past, not only on an institutional level, but also from the civil society; giving financial support to the civil society and also trying to back independent media and the civil society. Finally, even though we are aware that there are many problems ahead, we think that during the Spanish presidency of the European Union the trust building measures could be prioritized. For instance, there are some ongoing negotiations in the framework of the Geneva process, but none on a civil society level. Only five years ago, we were capable of holding regular meetings with organizations from Georgian and Abkhaz civil society. This is now practically impossible due to the restrictions in border access. In this sense, we have heard about the programme of the Generalitat de Catalunya in support of Human Rights activists and we think that our own activists could make use of it. It is a possibility we have to explore.

Interview by Pablo Aguiar, Javier Alcalde and Aida Guillén