Despite their unique characteristics and contexts, the Russian occupation of two regions in Georgia and its annexation of Crimea in Ukraine share a variety of similarities when it comes to the human rights situation on the ground.
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine began at the end of February 2014 with the occupation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. On March 16, a so-called referendum was conducted on the “inclusion” of Crimea in the Russian Federation. Russia has claimed that its control over Crimea started after this referendum. However, in January this year, the European Court of Human Rights concluded that Russia has been exercising effective control over Crimea since February 2014. There are 11 United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolutions mentioning the status of Crimea that support the territorial integrity of Ukraine and human rights and object to the militarization of the peninsula.
In April 2021, Russian military forces amassed at the eastern Ukraine border. Ukraine has defined the territories controlled by Russia and pro-Russian forces in both Crimea and the eastern Ukraine Donbas region as temporarily occupied territories. However, while the international community largely acknowledges that Russian actions in Donbas are destabilizing, it does not recognize direct Russian control of the region. In its preliminary reports, the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court suggested that an international armed conflict existed in eastern Ukraine alongside an non-international one.
There have been two main negotiation processes launched to discuss and resolve the situation in eastern Ukraine: the Normandy Format, involving the foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France; and the Minsk Protocol, with the engagement of Ukraine, Russia, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and leaders of the armed groups of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic. In the meantime, Crimea has never been the subject of any negotiation process, since Russia rejects any talks on the status of the peninsula.
Prior to spring 2014, Ukraine had never faced such a large-scale crackdown on the civil population. Eastern Ukraine was immediately turned into a battlefield. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, between April 14, 2014, and Feb. 15, 2020, there were as many as 44,000 conflict-related casualties in Ukraine, including up to 13,200 deaths and tens of thousands of injuries.
An exhaustive list of key human rights violations can be found in numerous UNGA resolutions, but one of the most significant issues is that of political prisoners. Currently, there are at least 122 Ukrainian citizens detained in occupied Crimea and in Russia for political motives, according to our coalition of Ukrainian human rights NGOs that are providing the assistance to these people and their families. Most of them are Crimean Tatars. In parallel, according to the Media Initiative for Human Rights, at least 170 prisoners are held in occupied Donbas, 15 of them women.
Another important trend is the militarization of Crimea, with consequences not only for security but also for the civil population’s human rights, and includes the militarization of public spaces and the forceful conscription of Ukrainian citizens in Crimea into the Russian army. It also extends to engaging children in military activities, so-called military-patriotic camps.
While analyzing the key human rights violations in Crimea, we see that all of them are essentially aimed at colonization and changing the demographic composition of Crimea. The Russian Federation tries to expel Crimea’s non-loyal population to mainland Ukraine while settling loyal citizens from Russia into the peninsula. This policy may amount to a war crime, but it also creates additional obstacles for any future attempts by Ukraine and the international community to end the occupation of Crimea.
Exactly 100 years ago, the Russian army occupied the first Democratic Republic of Georgia. In the decades that followed, the occupation has had many faces. Georgia regained independence in 1991 while two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, remained occupied following the Russian invasion in August 2008. Since conflicts erupted in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the early 1990s, Moscow has retained the role of peacekeeper and mediator, promoting those conflicts as ethnically driven quests for independence. After invading Georgia in 2008, the Russian Federation has revealed its true face as an occupying power. As a result of the Russian aggression in Georgia, up to 250,000 individuals have fled their homes, thousands have lost their lives, and up to 40,000 ethnic Georgians have managed to return to their homes in the Gali district, the closest to Georgia proper.
After the 2008 war, even more families fled the Tskhinvali region. And in parallel to a new campaign for international recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia-backed de facto authorities introduced new policies that continue to violate human rights on the ground. Furthermore, these territories were left without international security and human rights monitoring mechanisms, while the Geneva International Discussions — the only negotiation format where Russia acts as a party of the conflict — have largely become a series of technical meetings with no high-profile political representation from cochairs and parties.
Under such political circumstances, human rights violations in the occupied territories in Georgia vary from the restriction of freedom of movement to banning schooling in the native language and stripping local passports from the indigenous population. Moreover, Moscow’s “alliance and partnership” agreement with the de facto Abkhaz authorities granted the Russian Federation the power to protect the disputed “Georgian-Abkhaz border.” With the developments of recent years, the Georgian side has repeatedly expressed concerns over the de facto annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia similar to Crimea’s annexation in 2015.
2. Similarities and differences in the human rights situation
It is remarkable that the most active countries of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership — Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova — have all suffered at some point from destabilizing armed conflicts with the apparent or even open engagement of the Russian Federation. A closer look at the conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine show many similarities, particularly when it comes to the human rights situation, despite the fact that the affected population in Ukraine is much bigger.
- In occupied Crimea, Ukrainian citizens have no choice but to obtain a Russian passport in order to gain access to basic services and not be at risk of deportation. Ukraine is still recommending that citizens save their Ukrainian passports, so they can access state aide. Meanwhile, in the Donbas region, one can live normally without a Russian passport, although Russia still issues its passports there. According to estimates by Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, in February 2020, approximately 156,000 Ukrainian nationals in the east had already received a Russian passport.
- In parallel, Russia’s passport policies have become a new tool for the oppression and intimidation of the local Georgian population. In 2014, Abkhaz authorities annulled more than 21,000 Abkhaz passports issued to ethnic Georgians, leaving a sizeable portion of the population without the ability to travel to Georgia proper for basic goods, education, and health care. Finally, only a handful of Gali residents have been granted voting rights, with the majority receiving temporary residence permits despite being indigenous to the territory.
- Kidnappings, abductions, and arrests for violating “the border,” together with the installation of barbed wire in the middle of family properties in the Georgian-populated villages of the Shida Kartli region, have become a major face of the occupation of Tskhinvali. Both in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali, thousands of peaceful citizens fall victim to borderization every year. Cases of unlawful arrests, killings, and inhumane treatment have become regular news from the occupied territories, requiring immediate response and justice.
- There is no such borderization problem in the Ukrainian case thus far. However, similarities lie in the illegal detention of the civil population and the fact that prisoners become a bargaining chip.
- Lack of access to independent international human rights monitoring mechanisms has been an issue for Crimea throughout the years. International missions are not allowed to enter either Crimea or occupied Donbas. This problem has been especially painful amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
- In the occupied territories of Georgia, ethnic Georgians have become a major target of human rights violations. Starting in 2015, Abkhazia banned education in the Georgian language, leaving the entire school system in the Russian and Abkhaz languages. For more than two decades, Georgian authorities have funded Georgian schools operating in Abkhazia loyal to the Georgian education system.
- There is no such ethnic factor in the Ukrainian case. What has become a target for persecution are political views. People who support the territorial integrity of Ukraine become targets of persecution in both occupied Crimea and Donbas. However, Crimean Tatars are being persecuted as an ethnic group. In the occupied areas of both Ukraine and Georgia, attacks on identity via Russification and the return to the Soviet identity are threatening indigenous culture and heritage.
- Unlike Crimea, many have lost their lives in Abkhazia and South Ossetia while attempting to travel to Georgia proper. Especially after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, when de facto authorities closed crossing points without exceptions, a number of individuals drowned in the Enguri river in an attempt purchase medicine, and basic goods and receive social benefits and health care. Such tragic events demonstrate the brutality of occupation when basic freedom of movement is restricted.
- Sanctions against Russia should be maintained and strengthened, particularly against those committing human rights violations.
- The international community should support the Ukrainian government’s Crimea Platform initiative aimed at ending the occupation of Crimea. The Inauguration Summit was held on Aug. 23, 2021, and gathered representatives of 46 countries and intergovernmental organizations.
- With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the human rights situation in the occupied territories of Georgia has only worsened, and the Georgian government and the international community must not leave the population in the hands of the Russian Federation. In February 2020, Abkhaz authorities banned travel from the sole existing crossing point at the Enguri river, reopening it only in July 2021, having caused the deaths of a number of individuals who tried to reach Georgia proper for health care, social services, and basic commodities. While Georgia faces hybrid warfare with Russia, Moscow has already used its Russian-made Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine to strengthen its control over the occupied territories.
- Establishing international security and human rights monitoring mechanisms on the ground is crucial to improve the situation for residents of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali.
Ann Tsurtsumia-Zurabashvili is the project manager of the East-West Management Institute (EWMI) Advancing CSO Capacities and Engaging Society for Sustainability (ACCESS) Project in Georgia.
Maria Tomak is the coordinator of the Media Initiative for Human Rights in Ukraine. The views expressed in this piece are their own.
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