DRI’s work in Abkhazia and South Ossetia
Freedom of movement is the main challenge. Arbitrary border closures by the de facto authorities harm the local economy, which often relies on exchanges with the closest government-controlled area. Many residents of Abkhazia or South Ossetia regularly crossed the border for medical care even before the pandemic. Last December, the arrest by South Ossetian authorities of Georgian doctor Vazha Gaprindashvili for allegedly crossing the border illegally to assist a patient in the occupied territory caused outrage across Georgia.
The de facto authorities also often move the border further into Tbilisi-controlled territory, a process called ‘borderisation’ which, coupled with increased militarisation in the occupied regions, also affects the human rights and daily life of the local population, explains Nanuashvili.
Georgians in the occupied territories are also denied an education in their native language, as the educational system is in Russian and its quality is poor.
At present, DRI is the only NGO working in the occupied territories with such a wide network of local contacts. They consider it their duty to inform Georgian society and government, as well as the European Union and other international organizations, about daily life in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, through roundtables and other events focused on disseminating information.
Fighting radicalization and encouraging security sector reform
DRI’s activities are not limited to monitoring the occupied territories. Their interests range from monitoring far-right radicalisation to making policy recommendations for reform to the government.
When it comes to anti-radicalisation, Nanuashvili explains: “We try to monitor events organised by far-right groups and their activities on social media. We closely follow the groups and their leaders as well”. The rise of far-right extremist in Georgia follows a worldwide trend that was particularly visible last year, when attempts to host the country’s first ever LGBT pride event was met with protests and violent threats from ultra-conservative groups. During the Covid-19 emergency, DRI has also monitored how far-right groups have used the pandemic to spread misinformation and anti-Western conspiracy theories on social media.
DRI is also involved in studying best practices in the security sectors of various European countries to make recommendations for reform to the government. According to Nanuashvili, the security service is too politicised and it is not separated enough from the prosecutor’s office; he believes an independent body should be created to deal with corruption cases, as well as an independent security service with public and parliamentary oversight.
Another of DRI’s fields of expertise is the juvenile legal system. They provide free legal aid and psychological assistance to juveniles and their family members, as well as training for legal professionals and lawyers.
Georgia in the time of lockdown
When lockdown started in March, Nanuashvili moved much of his work remotely. Trainings were postponed, legal consultations moved online and DRI’s research and reporting work continued. They also launched a new project aimed at disseminating information on Covid-19 in different languages aimed at ethnic minorities in Georgia. DRI members acted as a watchdog for the government during the crisis, often appearing on television to discuss the state of emergency and human rights during the emergency situation.
DRI were also vocal in their opposition to a draft law that would allow the government to restrict the right of movement and assembly, a measure officially to help fight the pandemic, but that could lead to abuse of power by government agencies. “We were quite critical and asked the government for more information,” says Nanuashvili. Despite this opposition, parliament approved the law.
Overall, according to Nanuashvili, the Georgian government has been fairly effective in managing the Covid-19 pandemic. With only 818 confirmed cases and 13 deaths, Georgia has fared much better than its neighbours, and the two-month lockdown was lifted on May 22. But things are changing in Georgia. “Since June 2019 Georgia has become a different country”, warns Nanuashvili.
Last summer saw the launch of a protest movement after the government fired rubber bullets in a crowd protesting the visit of a Russian MP in the Georgian parliament. Since then, the ruling Georgian Dream party has concentrated even more power in its hands, and now has a quasi-monopoly not only in the political field, but also in mainstream media, which will be crucial for securing a majority in this year’s parliamentary elections. As he puts it, in the current circumstances, “everything is possible.”