Jasmine Van Deventer | 20.07.2010 08:46
We were there alongside GYLA, which works adamantly on behalf of the displaced. Talking after our visit with Nana Chapidze, a prominent GYLA member and our guide, she described how the Georgian central government’s responses to the plight of IDPs have always been gravely insufficient. Some places are worse than others, she explained, but, ultimately, the problem resides with centralization and inefficient bureaucrats emanating from headquarters in Tblisi. A lot of central government officials have stalled interminably on the issues of IDPs. They deploy the rhetoric of the right to return as both an excuse for inaction and a means of bolstering their popularity among those who sustain the hope of one day returning to the homes they left in current conflict zones. This is predominantly what propels GYLA’s efforts to foster vibrant political movements locally and to lobby for the devolvement of central operations to local government bodies, which generally harbor a greater stake in their constituents’ struggles.
GYLA has partnered frequently with international NGOs in their endeavors to address the circumstances born by IDPs, many of whom continue to suffer insufferable conditions that have remained largely unaddressed for nearly twenty years. Part of the reason asserted for such neglect is that those IDPs who took up housing as part of the deluges of 92 and 93 did so at a time when Georgia’s governmental infrastructure was recklessly inert. Many of them assumed residence in abandoned buildings, which the government blatantly overlooked, partially in order to avoid the reproach of the international community, for it had yet to acquire the organizational capacity necessary to sustainably respond to displaced persons’ needs. Without legal claim to the properties they assumed and without papers identifying them as legitimate residents, these IDPs occupy an amorphous social space, their identities largely anchored in their experience of displacement and the conditions that have become associated with it.
Conciliation Resources, a London-based NGO, is an organization that was participatory in a larger network project in which GYLA also took part. Buttressed by an ever-expanding web of support, implicating both local and international intergovernmental and civil organizations, NGOs like GYLA and CR undertake projects to develop the civic capacity of IDPs throughout Georgia. In recent years, GYLA has partaken in a number of multifaceted projects aiming to bolster civic activism and precipitate the formation of IDPs into a formidable political force, all while maintaining an emphasis on individuation and subjective political engagement. Its administrators have also given considerable attention to honing the capacities of IDPs to resist manipulation by formal political actors, who have been prone view them as either a constituency to be maintained by an insistence on the right to return or a symbolic and rather evocative mechanism that can be wielded in the struggle to extract concessions from the “other side” of the deeply fraught conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. For those who deploy such rhetorical schemes, IDPs’ continued suffering serves as testament to the pains wrecked upon Georgians in these zones, inducing international sympathy and garnering support for Tblisi’s claims to its former territories. Thus has the central government maintained a stake in keeping IDPs’ living conditions unsatisfactory, for it thereby succeeds in amassing both international financial support and political buttressing in its efforts to maintain a grip on disputed territories.
Such projects’ developments and findings have been recorded over the years. In one of its latest informative pamphlets, I took note of how vigorously IDPs have struggled to develop political visibility and socioeconomic viability. While the notion remains that there endures a zero-sum game between achieving return in the future and presently attempting full political, social, and economic integration into Georgian society, most IDPs harbor a real desire to have an impact on their present circumstances, which ultimately involves carving out a legitimate place for themselves in Georgian politics. Given that forty-five percent of IDPs reside in Collective Resettlement Centers, which tend to harden and perpetuate conditions of marginalization, the concept of integration remains just that, a concept having little bearing on present possibilities. Even more, many IDPs desire to influence Georgian policy regarding how to proceed in negotiations with the secessionist regions from which they’ve emerged. While these two options- seeking integration and maintaining the possibility of return- have often seemed at odds with each other, organizations like GYLA and CR have worked with IDPs to make it wholly apparent that such a zero-sum approach need not be undertaken.
Part of GYLA’s work consists in compelling government to institute policies and inscribe in law motions that nullify the incompatibility of integration and return. While integrating fully into Georgian socio-economic and political spheres may influence the desire to return in the future should durable lives be built on undisputed Georgian soil, the right to return would not thus become merely an empty chimera. This is especially true if IDPs gain some hold over the shaping of how they are perceived instead of remaining continually depicted as hostile, cohesive conglomerate, invariably bent against the pro-secessionist parties now presiding over the landscapes they once called home.
Thus do a great number projects such as those GYLA undertakes aim to bring into relief the variation in perspective amongst IDPs. Far from undifferentiated and monolithic, possessed of little more than grievances and an unrelenting desire to reclaim what was lost, the IDP population has proven deeply multifarious, composed as it is of vivid narratives that conflict and harmonize across space and time. The subjectivity of IDPs has been largely neglected in formal political forums, which has contributed to the rendering of the perception that they constitute a staid and inactive population, an immutable mass stuck in an irretrievable past and bound to an unrealizable future.
A crucial difficulty concerning IDPs rests in their political legitimacy, which has proven a challenge to fully realize. GYLA has arduously encouraged Parliament to adopt legislation that would protect IDPs’ rights as individual political agents. Prior to the efforts of local NGOs like GYLA, as well as international civil bodies, to propel the passage of legislation establishing IDPs as fully capacitated political actors, with the right to vote in both local and national elections, they had only been permitted to vote in Georgia’s elections for party candidates. Party candidates are sequenced on national ballots according to their respective parties’ garnered proportion of the total national vote, while majoritarian candidates are fielded on local election ballots. Until 1999, IDPs were denied the right to vote in majoritarian elections. Having little force in local politics, IDPs were further dispossessed of their right to even engage critically in national politics. Even if they chose not to vote in a show of protest, their ballots were often cast for them in favor of the incumbent party. Hence were IDPs consistently swindled into voting for major parties, and thus constituted as a sort of electoral constant, given to little variability and always voting as an entire bloc instead of as individuated agents. Their subjectivity thus negated, they were unable to make any headway on their own issues, not to mention questions of national concern.
GYLA, as a dedicated advocate of civic participation, has countered such embedded systemic hurdles through extensive lobbying endeavors. It has also worked to develop representative voices among IDPs, counseling those who demonstrate an interest and commitment to civic engagement on the workings of legislative processes and how to maintain political salience despite the presence of crafted categorical impositions that derive more from the conditions wrought by state policies and practices rather than those endured simply by virtue of being displaced.
We left the center moved by a deepened sense of urgency. The people we encountered were suffering conditions that demand attention, that will indubitably persist in the absence of forces strong enough to confront those of systemic violence. It reminded me of a passage I read from an article by Paul Farmer, the doctor and medical anthropologist whose work deals with rendering visible that which has yet to achieve its due prominence. His anthropological work deals significantly with disinterring the systemic mechanisms whereby inequalities of access and power are configured and maintained, constraining the agency of some for the benefit of a select few. He writes, “An honest account of who wins, who loses, and what weapons are used is an important safeguard against the romantic illusions of those who, like us, are usually shielded from the sharp edges of structural violence. I find it helpful to think of the “materiality of the social,” a term that underlines my conviction that social life in general and structural violence in particular will not be understood without a deeply materialist approach to whatever surfaces in the participant-observer’s field of vision—the ethnographically visible.” Seeing what I saw at the collective resettlement center in the Samagrelo Region of Georgia today reminded me again of how vital civil society can be, especially when the state has proven inadequate to the responsibilities it has been put in place to fulfill. The invisibility of IDPs- their material depredation and exclusion from the halls of political power- demands the attention of those who have the resources to confront the deeply wrought bureaucratic hurdles and systemic forces that restrict their agency. This has so far necessitated the implication of civil society on local, national, and international levels. If it means that further assistance, financial and/or logistical, is required from intergovernmental bodies, so be it.
Jasmine Van Deventer