Paata Zakareishvili

Paata Zakareishvili: We did not find anyone who wanted to pray but was not allowed to do so in Samtatskaro

Dimitri Avaliani
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State Minister of Georgia for Reintegration Paata Zakareishvili talked to Tabula about a variety of topical issues, including the conflict between local Orthodox Christian and Muslim residents in Samtatskaro village; the Geneva talks; the installation of a barbed wire fence along the occupational line with the Tskhinvali region; and the prospects of reopening the Abkhazia railway and the Ergneti market near Tskhinvali. Zakareishvili thinks that the conflict settlement will advance much faster if his entity changes its title and he no longer be called the state minister for reintegration. This is something he wants to fulfill, but, according to the minister, he is unable to because the president opposes the idea.

You visited Samtatskaro village where local Muslims were not allowed to conduct prayers. They were abused and threatened but none of the offenders have been detained so far. The Muslims cannot enter their prayer house, and you noted that perhaps they do not want to go there because of threats. Similar incidents have also taken place in other regions of Georgia. Consequently, some think that the situation, in terms of the protection of the rights of minorities, has deteriorated under the new government. What have you and other government representatives done to settle this issue? What are those steps that can be taken to tackle this problem?

Paata Zakareishvili Photo: Dimitri Chikvaidze / Tabula
Here we deal with various myths. The objective of the new government must be to not blindly punish someone only because society so demands. I have been trying to establish the truth for almost a month now and I have not yet met anyone, save for a single family, who would assert that they have come under pressure. That single family is the family of the local Muslim cleric...

But this cleric, Suliko Khozrevanidze, has left the village...

He left it [for Batumi] to undertake medical treatment... After the new government came to power certain forces have been trying to create problems out of a thin air – those problems are superficial and one thus cannot delve into any greater detail about them. In Samtatskaro I visited many Adjarian families. They say they have not had any problems with being able to pray over the period of thirty years [since they were resettled there as eco-migrants from Adjara] and they do not know where this problem has now come from. Even the Muslims themselves voiced dissatisfaction with their Muslim cleric [Suliko Khozrevanidze] – they believe he muddies the water without any reason. Perhaps one should not really believe this without double-checking the facts, but law enforcement officers, journalists, non-governmental organizations, and, of course, I myself, arrived at the village and did not find anyone who wanted to pray but was not allowed to do so. Thus, a question arises: does the village really have a sufficient number of believers who need a prayer house?

There exists another myth too, which comes from the local society, including the Muslims: since there is only a small local congregation which is not large enough to conduct a traditional Friday prayer, the Muslim cleric [Suliko Khozrevanidze] tries to bring in Muslims from outside the village so as to create the impression that the number of believers is high. This is what the locals oppose; they wonder what changed after the new government was installed that brought forth the need to show that there is a large congregation on the site that is prevented from conducting prayers.

It has not yet been clearly determined whether or not anyone should be punished and, if so, who should be punished. For non-governmental organizations and the media, the picture has been depicted as if someone is clearly preventing local Muslims from praying. I also previously believed that, but when I arrived [in the village] I could not find those people who were supposedly not allowed to pray.

Even if a single person is prevented from praying, is this not a violation?

A single person does not need a Friday congregation prayer since praying at home is sufficient for him/her. One gets the impression that for the Friday congregation prayer, the Jumu'ah, the number of people needed is artificially collected. The majority of local Muslims say that after the break up of the Soviet Union, their belief is more like a tradition than a necessity and an obligation. Therefore, they limit themselves to prayers at home. In other words, the Friday Jumu'ah prayer is a novelty for them and they do not see any need for it.

Do you have any theory about who could be interested in creating such an impression?

I have my theory, but as a member of the government I prefer not to publicly speak about that. I shared my theories with the police in the village and with government members in Tbilisi. I think this is being done by those people who want to create a false impression in the world that Islam faces a problem in Georgia. The topic of Islam is very popular in the world today.

As regards the key format of conflict settlement today, the Geneva talks. After the most recent round of talks, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, Grigory Karasin, who is Russia's chief negotiator at those talks, said that the Geneva discussions may not be needed any longer as a bilateral, Georgia-Russia, format of talks has been established involving him and Zurab Abashidze, the Prime Minister's Special Representative for Relations with Russia. Has this bilateral format provided additional stimulus for Russia to gradually frustrate the Geneva talks, bringing them to deadlock?

Unfortunately, I cannot see how the format of the Geneva discussions can become effective. It was established in the wake of the Georgia-Russia war [in August 2008] on the basis of the six-point ceasefire agreement [brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy] and it is a format for the settlement of the Russia-Georgia conflict. But Russia does not view it as such. To neutralize its role, Russia brought participants from Sokhumi and Tskhinvali into this format. In response, we also brought in representatives of the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali governments-in-exile. This made the format more even ambiguous. Any result against this backdrop is, as of yet, unimaginable. The new government carries on with the situation it inherited. It has not changed anything, nor has it made any effort to do so.

As a rule, it is the participants from Sokhumi and Tskhinvali who talk about a change of format. Their only aim is to enhance their status at the Geneva talks. This is not a tragedy in itself, but it will overshadow the focus on the Russia-Georgia conflict, which is unacceptable for us. We want to state clearly that this is the format for settling the Russia-Georgia conflict, it was established for that very aim and we must work in this direction.

First, Karasin said that the Geneva talks had been losing their significance, then [Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander] Lukashevich repeated the same. This seems to be shaping into a trend, but why had the talks not lost their purpose before that? Why did they conduct 25 rounds of those talks?

I doubt that the Russian side wants to withdraw from the talks. The statements which they have made are only a form of pressure. We explicitly and firmly support the existing format and do not see any sense in changing it. If Russia ruins this format, both the Abkhazians and South Ossetians, who are provided with some sort of tribune on the international level by this format, will be harmed and I doubt that Russia will gain any benefit from that either.

Even though the new government spares no effort to settle relations with Russia, that country has recently taken aggressive steps towards us – the installation of a barbed wire fence, the demarcation of "borders," the frequent seizure of citizens of Georgia along the occupational line with the Tskhinvali regions. How can this situation and those steps be responded to?

A principled difference between us and the former authorities is that we speak about everything and do not try to hush up this or that topic. Neither the installation of the barbed wire fences, nor the seizure of people started under our government. It is simply that such actions are now being covered by the media and have become hotly discussed. The installation of the barbed wire fences began in 2009 whilst now this progress has intensified.

However, now this is being done on a way broader scale than it was before...

The scale has increased because the Georgian politics have changed. The Russians started building the "Berlin Wall" to prevent the Ossetian population from fleeing. Why? During the time of Saakashvili, anyone coming from there to visit relatives, to receive treatment, or for any other reason, came under pressure from the police, who tried to lure them [recruit them as spies] by blackmail. This happened throughout Georgia and it is of no surprise that such occurrences were more frequent in case of the [South] Ossetian population. Consequently, the Ossetian population decided to shut themselves away and to have nothing in common with the Georgian population. The new government brought novelty with it – no one is treated badly in the rest of Georgia, no one is being summoned to or lured by the police and the Ossetians have become convinced of that.

How large is the number of Ossetians coming here? Can you cite some figures?

I cannot cite the figures publicly. The number of South Ossetians arriving here for treatment has increased. I cannot speak openly about certain issues, as I do not want to put those people in danger. The Russians have realized that the politics of real rapprochement and the recovery of confidence has started.

As regards the detentions [of people living along the occupation line], the most important thing is that the majority of those people whom the Russian military detain are, as a rule, released shortly thereafter. Earlier, such people were kept in detention for longer periods. This change must be credited to our police – they act in a more professional manner and speak with the Ossetian side about the release of people. Their contact with the Ossetian side is made more effective today via the hot line. Once someone is detained, instead of staging protests with campfires and young protesters with banners [as was the case during Saakashvili's government], the hot line comes into use and the work on the release of that person commences. As a rule, Russians seize from between five to six persons per every 100 people moving along the dividing line. If they detained everyone, no one would have entered that territory.

Do you mean that the degree of protection of the population along the occupational line has increased?

Not so much their protection as their personal safety – the detainees now spend several days in relatively better conditions in [the Tskhinvali] prison, not months – that is the difference. As of now, up to ten citizens of Georgia are in the Tskhinvali prison. Some of them have been sentenced to many years in prison, including one for murder. One of the prisoners worked in [the head of the provisional administration of the Tskhinvali region in-exile, Dmitry] Sanakoyev's administration and, in my opinion, he was arrested on political grounds. The majority of them are serving sentences for so-called "border crossing."

The Tskhinvali regime heightened the controls on "border crossings" since September. It banned vehicle traffic and restricted cargo transfer. Do you have any reaction to that?

There is nothing new in that, unfortunately. The dividing line in the direction of Tskhinvali is closed just like the dividing line in the Gali district [at the occupational line with Abkhazia]. They want to close the directions towards Akhalgori and Perevi where traffic is still allowed. This prohibition is clearly in the interests of Russia in order to stop the movement of people across the dividing line and this primarily harms the population of the Tskhinvali region.

Paata Zakareishvili Photo: Dimitri Chikvaidze / Tabula

The Russian side frequently made statements about that before. Since the occupation, there have been constant threats that this or that direction would be closed, though nothing ever materialized. Whether they will fulfill this plan this time around we will see in September, but we will necessarily raise this issue at the Geneva talks, within the Karasin-Abashidze format, and on any other level we can reach, including at the level of international organizations.

The Russians still declare that the peoples of the region must themselves settle their relationships between one another; Putin also said this. On the other hand, they continue to impose such restrictions. This is the reality we see, but if they try to impede the relationship between Georgians and South Ossetians with barbed wire, we will find some other way and take bolder steps towards that.

A monitoring report of the Council of Europe contains a point about the Russia-Georgia war in which it says that the Georgian government has recognized Abkhazian and South Ossetian "passports" as valid. You and the government have flatly denied this information although in one of your earlier interviews to Tabula you expressed your support of this. If the government did not make such a decision, how come this point made it into the report?

You should ask the authors of the report about that. I have no idea from whom they learnt about such a decision. When I have a possibility to meet with the monitors, I will definitely ask them what the statement, that the Georgian government has recognized such documents as being valid, was based on.

The former government adopted three normative acts and one cannot exclude the possibility that the monitors based their statement on those documents. In particular, the decree of the Georgian government, dated 3 November 2010, says that people who live in the occupied territories, but who are not Georgian citizens can receive medical care. In the decree of the Justice Minister of Georgia, dated 11 October 2011, the list of documents to be submitted for acquiring a status-neutral document includes "birth certificates or identity cards issued by officials of illegal bodies operating in the corresponding occupied territories." Moreover, Article 8 of the Law on Occupational Territories states that any document issued by the illegal bodies shall not be recognized as valid except in such cases when used with the aim of issuing status-neutral IDs and status-neutral travel documents. These decrees were adopted by the former government and I deem them correct. I have always said that we must move in this direction. However, the current government has not taken a decision to recognize the validity of the so-called passports. Therefore, I also ask my opponents to talk to me with the support of facts and quotes, just as I do with them.

As regards status-neutral documents. Before your appointment you repeatedly said that you would study the degree of efficiency of these documents. You were skeptical about these documents. What trend has since been revealed? Are they effective? How do they work and how much they are needed?

These documents are needed because since the status-neutral documents have been introduced only 27 people have obtained status-neutral travel documents. Three of them crossed the border with these documents. Thus, I will let readers judge the efficiency of those documents.

Status-neutral ID cards are obtained by many because they are tied to the provision of medical services. However, it must be studied whether or not they are used elsewhere.

Over the same period that 27 people obtained status-neutral travel documents, more than 300 people obtained Georgian passports. One can travel across the world with a Georgian passport, whereas a status-neutral passport only allows travel to 10 countries. We call on all friendly countries to continue to work on the recognition of status-neutral documents. The more states that recognize these documents, the higher the number of people that will consider it more beneficial to obtain a status-neutral document. True, this document is not as effective as a state passport, but it exists as an alternative and people have that choice. We must help such people have an alternative.

Let me ask you about the Abkhaz section of the railway. Last year you put forward the initiative to discuss this issue. This topic was then raised during the prime minister's visit to Armenia. Following that, talks on the issue seemed to have stopped. A short while ago, the former de facto prime minister of the Sokhumi regime, Sergei Shamba, said that Abkhazia will probably not be against reopening the railway. However, this creates an impression that Abkhazia itself does not view it as an important topic in terms of economic growth or the political settlement of the conflict, and that the issue is more linked to Russia's interests, which Abkhazia might take into account. In your opinion, why should we support the reopening of this railway? What could our interest be? Do you see any threats posed by the implementation of this plan?

We must support this plan only if it is in the interests of Georgia. My earlier statement meant that Georgia must not be the cause of the non-reopening of this railway; that Georgia must weigh up the need for this railway; and that the possibility not be excluded, as this issue will become one of main topics in the relationship with Russia.

Then, the Prime Minister [Bidzina Ivanishvili] went further on this topic whilst in Yerevan. He said that the implementation of this issue must take into account the complicated relations between Russia and Georgia. If this issue is settled, it will be beneficial for Georgia's economic interests. The more railways, roads, bridges, tunnels, oil pipelines, gas pipelines and other infrastructure, the richer and stronger the country will be.
Just recently, [President Mikheil] Saakashvili declared that the new government plans to reopen the Abkhazia railway before commissioning the Baku-Akhalkalaki-Kars railway. This is a lie. The prospect of the Abkhazia railway is very distant, whilst that of Kars is very close.

No prospect for connecting a Russia-Georgia railway via Abkhazia exists so far. You recalled Sergei Shamba's statement. Before that, [an Abkhaz politician] Stanislav Lakoba categorically refused the idea of reopening the railway; thereafter [the de facto president of occupied Abkhazia] Alexander Ankvab softened that statement and Shamba expressed clear consent to that. But no Russian official has made any statement yet. As it appears today, if the reopening of the railway does not play into one party's hands, then that party is Russia...

But this railway is beneficial for Russia in many ways...

Ask Russia about that. The railway cannot be reopened until discussions on this issue have started between Georgia and Russia.

On what terms could that issue be resolved?

If I start dwelling on that now, it will suggest that this is a serious topic for me. This is not a serious topic because it is still a matter for the very distant future. The key thing is that we, the Georgian government, are not afraid of talking about this issue and we offer to discuss its risks and prospects with everyone. Before settling the issue of the Abkhazia railway, many other issues must be tackled between Georgia and Russia.
This is a very good litmus test for checking everyone's attitudes. It is good that this topic is being discussed in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Where it is not discussed? Only in Russia! We must draw logical conclusions from that.

Will the Ergneti market be restored? This was one of the pre-election promises of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. Is work in progress on this issue? How do you intend, in the case of its resumption, to fight contraband? Let me recall that smuggling through the Ergneti market, this large trade hub on the outskirts of Tskhinvali, was rife during Shevardnadze's rule. This resulted in the loss of significant revenues to Georgia's state budget and encouraged illegal activities such as kidnapping, drug-trafficking and arms trading.

Of course, if it is resumed, we must be protected from smuggling. But, as with the resumption of the Abkhazia railway, no work is underway on this issue. The reason for that in both cases is that we first have to implement other measures. A person who does not yet have a fiancé cannot think about their baby's birthday. Other things need to be done first.

Before reinstalling the Ergneti market, a lot of steps must be taken. At the very least the road [towards Ergneti] must be reopened. What shall the population sell there now? Ergneti was not for trade between Gori and Tskhinvali, but between Russia and the South Caucasus.

This is a serious issue. Once the road is reopened, trade will naturally start by itself and then the need to regulate this will arise. The issue of this market has not been discussed at any level because, as I have already said, other issues need to be resolved first.

Can you speak about some clear progress or achievements you have made in any direction since you have taken over the state ministry?

President Saakashvili refuses to sign a document on the change of the title of this ministry. This change is being awaited by the Abkhazians and South Ossetians too. I cannot make the new title of this entity public yet because I do not want to create a situation whereby the Abkhazians and South Ossetians like it beforehand. This new title does not matter much; the key is that this entity must no longer be called what it is called now because the Abkhazians and South Ossetians do not speak with an entity with such a name.

Even though we have lost much time because of the failure to change our title, some steps are still being taken. The Resolution on Basic Directions of Georgia's Foreign Policy, adopted unanimously by the parliament of Georgia on 7 March 2013, was of great importance. It explicitly states that Georgia confirms its unilateral obligation on the non-use of force [against the occupied territories]. With this resolution, parliament documented, on the level of the law, an earlier pledge made verbally by the President of Georgia.

This step has somewhat weakened the acuteness of Russia's demand for signing an agreement with the Abkhazian and South Ossetian sides on the non-resumption of hostilities.

Yet another positive factor is that terrorist acts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as in the adjacent territories, have virtually stopped. Coffins full of the corpses of young males no longer arrive in Sokhumi and Tskhinvali. Peace has settled along the dividing lines and both the Abkhazians and Ossetians witness that.

Aggressive rhetoric has also stopped. One cannot even recall a single quote from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in which, for example, Ivanishvili is disrespectfully referred to. Expectations have arisen among those people and they are trying not to sour the yet non-existing relations. They do not feel such distaste towards the new government and do not make such aggressive assessments about it as they did towards the former government. How justified those assessment [towards the former government] were is a separate issue, but it is a fact that the rhetoric of that type has stopped and this is a very important development.
These are the steps which can be discussed publicly. I can boldly claim that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Much more is being done beneath the surface.

I believe that we have several deadlines for the processes that must be completed. The first is the presidential elections in October. With these elections, Georgian politics will break free from cohabitation and become more flexible. Saakashvili does not interfere much, but he impedes seriously. He is like handcuffs; once we have taken them off, many issues will be settled much more easily.

November will probably see the formation of a new government, the enactment of the new constitution. This will be followed by December, Christmas and New Year, and further by the [Sochi Winter] Olympics. By around late February or spring, everything will have been settled. The place of Mr. Bidzina Ivanishvili will also have been clearly identified by then. The Abkhazians and South Ossetians will, consequently, realize the Ivanishvili factor. By spring we will have sorted out the picture; from March or April we will find ourselves in a completely different situation and will also see concrete results.

Before you were appointed to your current position, you predicted that we would see tangible results within two to three years....

No, within two to three years, perhaps even earlier, an irreversible process will have begun. Back then, I hoped for a quick change in the title of the ministry. Politics is like a game of chess – a rival cannot make a move until you have made your move. That, therefore, impeded many things.

We must resume the relationships that Saakashvili thwarted within three years before leading us to war in 2008. While those relationships existed, one could telephone Sokhumi or Tskhinvali to receive information from them on any incident that had happened. This is not so easy now. We must start this process within two to three years and get concrete results from within four to five years. Let me cite the example of Cyprus – a conflict that has existed for 40 years on the territory of the European Union; the territory of the European Union is occupied like Georgia's territory. I am strongly convinced that the gap between the Greeks and Turks is much deeper and there are far more problems to be settled between them than between Georgians and Abkhazians and Georgians and South Ossetians. While the Greeks and Turks have failed to settle their conflict over a period of 40 years, we will see the first results within a period from between seven and eight years.

We must have the first tangible result within five to six years – a result where everyone, even our opponents, will say that something really has been done. After that, we may start calculating when we will achieve that point when the state in which we will be able to live dignified lives will become acceptable for everyone, including the Abkhazians and the South Ossetians.

Since you have become the state minister, has there been any issue towards which you have changed your own principled position and treated differently?

I cannot answer this question; I have to ponder over that. I would not exclude such a thing and do not think that a person must never change. I have worked on the issue of conflicts for 20 years now and know every detail. This question may be more appropriate in March or April when the situation will essentially have changed and we will have conditions for doing realistic politics. Then I may indeed review certain issues. Unfortunately, the dynamic is very slow and it is difficult to match various spontaneously occurring steps with each other.

 

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