Nine days ago in Georgia’s Black Sea region of Achara, President Mikheil Saakashvili unveiled the glitzy, “seven-star” seaside resort of Anaklia -- a complex intended as a response to Russia’s military presence in breakaway Abkhazia.
At an August 22 opening ceremony, the president declared that Anaklia, just several kilometers from Abkhazia, would prove a rival to “Saint-Tropez or Nice,” and show that Georgia’s “main goal is peace.”
But the project, commissioned by the government at a reported cost of 16.5 million euros (about $23.8 million), stands in stark contrast to the living conditions faced by tens of thousands of ethnic Georgians displaced by war from Abkhazia itself; individuals whose homeless state Saakashvili has said makes himself “feel . . .displaced.”
Anaklia’s estimated price tag (an official figure was not available) is approximately six times larger than the 2011 budget for the Ministry for Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Accommodations and Refugees (MRA), which organizes housing for Georgia’s Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).
To date, just a fourth of the estimated 88,000 families from Abkhazia who are eligible for housing have made the move into government-provided residences, according to official data.
Government officials were not available to say what makes Anaklia a budgetary priority. But Deputy MRA Minister Tamar Martiashvili argues that the spending gap does not mean that IDPs from Abkhazia are not a government priority.
“[I]t is absolutely a government priority. Even the prime minister and president state in every speech about . . . the priority of IDPs,” she said.
The ministry’s budget, intended for coordinating government IDP assistance efforts, is calculated with international donors’ contributions in mind. “[A]ll other relative ministries
are engaged and fully involved in this process,” she said.
Construction of houses and other resettlement options for IDPs displaced from Abkhazia started in January 2009 -- just two months after international donors pledged to finance Georgia’s IDP housing effort.
The European Union alone has paid 105 million euros (roughly $151.4 million) for housing, reconstruction and other assistance programs in three separate grants to the Georgian government.
The US government has donated $83 million to IDPs and recently pledged $34.67 million to renovate 92 buildings and upgrade water and sewage systems in 12 IDP settlements. Other donors, like the United Nations High Council for Refugees, have helped pick up the tab for other housing projects.
Martiashvili concedes that the Georgian government’s own funding for the IDP housing program has been comparatively small -- she did not provide an exact figure since government contributions include state-owned assets -- but underlines that its indirect support has been immense.
Tbilisi has donated “up to 700” buildings to the resettlement effort, as well as new roads, gas and electricity lines and other necessary infrastructure, she said.
The government also resettled tens of thousands of families displaced from South Ossetia during Georgia’s 2008 war with Russia in cottage-style houses built in a matter of months.
Martiashvili described the assistance as not “as visible” as the international donor funds, but nevertheless vital.
The overall IDP housing campaign is slated to end in 2014, two years later than expected.
In Poti, a port city just 30 miles from Anaklia, construction for IDP housing, financed by foreign donors, is well underway, although at a noticeably different pace than at Anaklia.
Some 1,200 IDP families from Abkhazia recently moved into several buildings in a 32-building complex. Crisp white curtains hang from windows, crosses adorn doorways and furniture ads adorn building entranceways.
Tina Chitanava, a 60-something IDP from the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, says that her family’s two-room apartment is an improvement from the cockroach-infested collective center she inhabited for nearly 18 years after fleeing the breakaway region. “Of course, it is better by comparison,” Chitanava said.
The quality of the construction, however, is at times open to question. Apartment walls in some of the complex’s buildings are already cracking under their new coats of paint and laminated floorboards buckle in places.
With few belongings of their own, many families are sleeping on mattresses, sometimes as many as three to a bedroom.
Some residents said they had hoped to find construction jobs at the resort in nearby Anaklia, but had failed.
But while the disparity between Anaklia and government IDP projects may provide grounds to think that the Georgian government favors investment over IDP resettlement projects, the MRA itself remains firm in its commitment to housing solutions, noted Lasha Gogidze, a research analyst at anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International Georgia,
“[Y]ou cannot really say that it is not a priority for [the MRA] to satisfy these people and provide them with a durable housing solution,” Gogidze said.
Eka Gvalia, executive director of the Charity Humanitarian Centre Abkhazeti, which works with Abkhazia IDPs, also believes that the government is making good on the promise to provide housing for all IDPs – albeit much more slowly than anticipated.
“It seems that the MRA has a real priority to provide durable housing to IDPs,” Gvalia said.
The MRA’s Martiashvili blames the delay on the cost and sheer number of people to be resettled.
Still, despite such assurances, a lack of clear information about the government’s IDP housing policy and frequent miscommunication about its intentions mean that many IDPs feel sidelined, Gvalia continued.
“When the MRA says something, they think it will be negative, it will be worse,” Gvalia said, speaking in reference to IDPs. “That is not always the case, but [IDPs] don’t always have official information.”
“At the moment, most of the IPDs still think they are not a priority of the government.”
Martiashvili, stressing that her ministry stays in constant contact with IDPs via a telephone hotline, maintains the opposite. “I think our government, with the help of the donors and foreign governments, made a very successful work and achieved extremely unprecedented results,” she said.