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Time for ‘people power’ in the Caucasus

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PRAGUE — For the past month, women in Georgia who were displaced from Abkhazia during the 1993 conflict have witnessed history moving backward; everything they lived through 15 years ago is repeating itself. These women are now hosting a new flood of displaced civilians from Abkhazia and South Ossetia after Russia’s aggression in those regions, as well as within the Georgian territories that Russian forces occupied after the invasion. In Tbilisi alone, there are more than 500 camps for internally displaced people, many of them women and children living with shortages of food and medical supplies.

Georgians today hardly feel supportive of their president, Mikheil Saakashvili, who, in a foolish attempt to regain control over South Ossetia, provoked Russia to drop its peacekeeping mission in the region and turn its full military might to pushing Georgian troops out of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and then to occupying much of Georgia. The Russians bombed numerous strategic and civilian targets in Georgia, destroying infrastructure and producing growing shortages of food, fuel and medicine.

People are in despair; they are angry at Russia for its aggression and at their own government for provoking this uneven conflict. People of different nationalities and ethnicities have been living in this region side by side for centuries, sharing customs, traditions, bread and wine, and mutual respect for each another’s cultures and languages. But, going back to the Russian, British and Ottoman Empires that once battled here, they have been continually exploited by politicians and generals.

Women and children suffer the most in times of conflict. Add to this centuries-old patriarchal traditions, 15-year-old postwar traumas, a 20-year economic crisis and current Russian aggression, and you may begin to grasp what women in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Georgia are enduring these days.

Besides the general devastation that modern warfare brings, impoverished and angry Russian soldiers were wreaking havoc on civilians by stealing belongings left behind and raping women. In addition, lawlessness was enticing bandits to cross the border and vandalize and rob properties left by fleeing refugees. News reports and “analysis” by state-controlled channels in both Russia and Georgia that promote negative images of “the enemy” serve only to widen the gap between ethnic groups.

Over the past month, concerned citizens in both Russia and Georgia have started to make attempts to build alliances and reach out to each other outside of the government-controlled media and structures. There have been action calls and statements circulated on the Web calling on the people of the region to unite and not allow governments to build bigger walls between them.

Despite government propaganda, the region’s people must remember that Russians are not superior to Georgians, Georgians to Ossetians or Abkhazians, and so on. We need to stop these territorial battles based on national pride and desire to control and rule. Saakashvili must be pressured to abandon his effort to wield full control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. At the same time, the Russian government must be pressured to pull out of the Caucasus and let people there decide their future for themselves.

Now is the time for Georgian, Russian, Abkhazian and Ossetian civilians who are bearing the brunt of the conflict to come together to stop imperial chess games that kill thousands of people and leave thousands more displaced and emotionally wounded. It is time to help civil society in this area build a world where peace, not warfare, is the rule. Women’s rights activists in the region should not fall into a brainwashing trap of nationalism and territorial disputes, becoming another tool in the hands of politicians. They should demonstrate to their governments that they will not succumb to divisive ideology.

Angelika Arutyunova is program officer for Europe and Commonwealth of Independent States at the Global Fund for Women. © 2008 Project Syndicate