The breakaway territory should seek legitimacy through supporting native Georgian rights, not playing dominoes

by Hugh Williamsonm, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Published in: The Guardian
November 19, 2011

They like playing dominoes in Abkhazia. As dusk falls, young men unpack their pieces on the promenade by the Black Sea in Sukhumi, the picturesque capital of this breakaway territory bidding for independence from Georgia.

The fact that Abkhazia is a largely unrecognised state does not diminish the duty on the authorities, as the territory’s controlling power, to meet their human rights obligations under international law.

Yet like playing ping pong in China, shuffling the dominoes in Abkhazia can also resonate with wider diplomatic meaning. In October, Sukhumi was proud to host the domino world championship (yes, it exists). Abkhazia didn’t win – the Dominican Republic had that honour – but it achieved its goal of gaining some international attention. More than 200 players from two dozen countries attended, including a team from the US.

We spent 90 minutes putting these points to Alexander Ankvab, Abkhazia’s de facto president – a can-do politician who takes visitors’ calls on his mobile.

He disagreed with most of our findings, though, and talked about the “new realities” he was building in Abkhazia – realities that the largely hostile international community would have to get used to, he noted.

We said his “new realities” need to be grounded in the rights of the territory’s long-established population.

Abkhazia is only recognised by Russia, Venezuela and two other tiny states, and its status is part of the bitter tensions between Russia and Georgia that peaked in their short war in August 2008.

The two countries’ breakthrough agreement on 9 November on customs arrangements is a sign that compromises are possible. Yet the annoyance in Washington and Tbilisi, and the pride in Sukhumi and Moscow, over such a seemingly harmless domino match (media reports told of intense, ultimately futile pressure on the US domino players, for instance, to withdraw) underline how politicised any dealings with Abkhazia really are.

This atmosphere does not make independent human rights work in Abkhazia very easy. In our meetings with Abkhaz officials on this visit, that came as no surprise, and Human Rights Watch rarely opts for the easy ride. But it means that, as in other territorial conflicts, a different, more creative approach is needed to protect the rights of ordinary people by the key players involved. In this case, those players include Russia, with its strong military and financial backing for the territory.

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Their Eastern Approaches

I systematically follow Edward Lucas’s blog “Eastern Approaches” at The Economist. Yestarday I read an interesting post about EU-Russia visa liberalization. Lucas published this particular article at The Economist’s sister publication in Brussels, European Voice, that carries a weekly column called “Wil(d)er Europe”. Excerpt from article:

Leaving rhetoric aside, the issue is really about two things. One is fairness. Should Russia get a deal that is better (perhaps dramatically better) than what is on offer to the countries of the ‘Eastern Partnership’, such as Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova? The EU has repeatedly criticised the Russian policy of “passportisation” in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway regions of Georgia where ties with Moscow have been bolstered by the generous provision of Russian passports. If visa liberalisation now made it easier for such Russian passport-holders to get to the EU, it would be outrageously unfair. It would also undermine the attractiveness (and thus sovereignty) of the countries that we are trying to help.

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Georgian Brain Drain

I was thinking about Brain Drain phenomen. One major case of the brain drain happens when students from developing countries studying in the developed countries decide not to return home after their studies.

The brain drain is the large-scale emigration of individuals with technical skills or knowledge. It is normally due to conflict, lack of opportunity, political instability, or health risks. Although the term originally referred to technology workers leaving a nation, according to Webster dictionary the meaning has broadened into: “the departure of educated or professional people from one country, economic sector, or field for another, usually for better pay or living conditions”.

When I moved to Italy in 2007 for my masters studies I kept saying I would come back to Georgia after graduation. I would say I have a desire to work for my country, otherwise often all the educated people stay abroad after studies, “who should be in charge for my country if not us?” I repeated naively. So I did return to Georgia and every day since I recall one evening at my place in Italy with my Georgian mate. She is older then me, waaaay more experienced and educated (abroad). She tried to persuade me that soon these illusions of going back to Georgia happily ever after would turn out in an opposite way. I am a stubborn person, I should tell you, but she didn’t try much either. She was sure in what she was telling me. So every time I would come back home for a vacation I kept repeating about my comeback plans. But that was before I bought a one way ticket to Tbilisi. Continue reading

Strategic Insignificance as Advantage? view on Caucasus

“This leads me to the paradoxical thought that a healthy dose of strategic insignificance would be very positive for the South Caucasus. Viewing the region in this light would allow outsiders and locals alike to concentrate on solving essential everyday problems.”

This is the excerpt from Thomas de Waal’s article published at Foreign Policy. He talks about the share responsibility towards Caucasus region. “We are at fault, I believe, because our faulty perceptions and interpretations have helped make bad local politics worse.” Thomas de Waal identifies three dangerous mirages — misguided approaches to this region that reverberate in decidedly unhelpful ways:

“the first mirage may be the oldest: the notion that the region is a “Great Chessboard”, The second mirage is that of the Russian bear looming over this region ready to maul the relatively defenseless Caucasian peoples, even today, and the third mirage is the perception of the South Caucasus as an area of great Western strategic interest — an approach, that paradoxically, actually does more harm than good.”

The proposal of strategic insignificance makes sense and I have had such thoughts before.  In a way its a simple truth as any faulty perception and interpretation misleads the true course of the matter. Different false perceptions within the state or a region has been one of the reasons for conflicts in many cases.

In the end Thomas gives few recommendations:

“As for Western policy-makers, I believe they should ask themselves two questions every time they contemplate an intervention in the South Caucasus: “Is my action helping to open borders and free up a blocked region?” and “Does it empower ordinary people and not just governments?”

Quite interesting view from outside. Check out the full article HERE.

The Happiest Title on Earth

Ok, enough is enough.

I kept this post as a draft for more then a month. First it was World’s Happiest Countries ranking by the Forbes, now The Wordl’s best Countries list according to Newsweek. The magazine has ranked living conditions in 100 countries around the world, where Finland was judged to be the best. (list goes as: Switzerlans, Sweden, Australia, Luxembourg, Norway, Canada, Netherlands, Japan, Denmark, USA, Germany, New Zealand, UK…) The analysis examined factors such as education and health care, quality of life, economic dynamism, and political environment.

And you know what? There is no GEORGIA among the 100 countries of the world (!!!). Even Burkina Faso, Zambia, Kenya, Botswana, Honduras manage better then Georgia. Not that I have ilusions about my country, but trust me I have enough education and information to compare objectively Botswana and kenya with Georgia taking into account education and health care, quality of life, economic dynamism, and political environment.

And this is only the first reason why I am against such “Happy” ranking projects.

Can anyone really measure HAPPINESS?! One can buy a very expensive mattress and pillows,  but can he buy his peaceful Sleep?! There is no way to measure happiness objectively. This is my second point. Thousands of people were given the questionnaire across 155 countries so maybe 100 people from each country. How does this give an objective indication on something as complicated as happiness?!

According to the poll of “Happy ones”, Turkmenistan, which came in 18th place on the list, is the happiest Central Asian nation. Surprisingly, it ranked above wealthier Western countries like Italy, Germany, and France. Apparently happiness isn’t related to civil liberties.  Moreover, something that could be enough for happiness in Turkmenistan is expected to be only the part of the happiness preconditions for Italians and even Georgians, for instance. The more educated, literate people are, more they strive for, ambitions are higher. You can’t compare!

As Rana Foroohar says, the golden rule of economics has always been that well-being is a simple function of income. That’s why nations and people alike strive for higher incomes—money gives us choice and a measure of freedom. “But a growing body of studies show that wealth alone isn’t necessarily what makes us happy. After a certain income cap, we simply don’t get any happier. And it isn’t what we have, but whether we have more than our neighbor, that really matters. So the news last week that in 2006 top hedge-fund managers took home $240 million, minimum, probably didn’t make them any happier, it just made the rest of us less so. Now policymakers are racing to figure out what makes people happy, and just how they should deliver it.” (Rana Foroohar: the Joy of Economics)

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Useful for PHD researchers from South Caucasus

If I was conducting PHD studies, I would definitely use this opportunity. Already saved the link for the future.

Meanwhile, PHD researchers from South Caucasus could benefit from it. I am talking about the ACADEMIC SWISS CAUCASUS NET (ASCN). It is a 5-year programme aiming at promoting social sciences and humanities in the South Caucasus. The various actors involved in the programme believe that by doing so it encourages constructive debates on society and thus contributes to the transformation process of the region. As the official web says, the different activities foreseen in the programme aim at contributing to the emergence of a new generation of talented researchers in the three Republics of the South Caucasus.

Young promising researchers are supported through research projects, capacity-building trainings and scholarships. The ASCN Programme is run and coordinated by the Interfaculty Institute for Central and Eastern Europe (IICEE) of the University of Fribourg. It is supported by GEBERT RÜF STIFTUNG. In its initial phase, the programme is mainly focusing on Georgia. The programme will be extended to Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2011.

Each year a limited number of short-term grants (one week to one month) to Switzerland are available for young researchers from the South Caucasus. These grants offer scholars (PhD. candidates and higher) from the region the following possibilities: participation to a conference in Switzerland, exchange with Swiss scholars and visit of Swiss academic institutions with the goal to initiate cooperation, exchange on specific research projects, work on an ongoing (PhD.) project and benefit from research infrastructure in Switzerland.

For the year 2010, grants are restricted to Georgian citizens. The grants are open to researchers from all Georgian institutions of higher education in the fields of humanities and social sciences. Applications can be made any time during the year.

For the rest visit their official web-site. Hope it can somehow help you.