Residents of Abkhazia’s predominantly ethnic Georgian-populated Gali district organized a protest rally on January 25 against the planned closure of two crossing points along the Enguri River – at Nabakevi-Khurcha and Meore Otobaia-Orsantia – between Gali and its adjoining Zugdidi district of Samegrelo region.
The de-facto Abkhaz government decided to close two out of four crossing points along the administrative boundary line (ABL) by the end of January at its session on December 28.
The video footage broadcasted by Rustavi 2 TV on January 27, shows a group of approximately 200 residents of Nabakevi and surrounding villages, women and children predominantly, rallying along the road and waving placards with messages against the crossing point closure.
“We would like to tell the [Georgian] government that we are in Abkhazia and we would like to keep our houses for our children. We are being pressured. Georgia should pay attention to us, so that the road is not closed for these children,” an unnamed local resident stated in Georgian.
Residents of Nabakevi and surrounding villages travel to the nearby villages in neighboring Zugdidi district through Nabakevi-Khurcha crossing point for schooling, medical services and commercial activities. The alternative route, running through the main crossing point over the Enguri River, close to village Chuburkhinji, would lengthen the journey for locals by at least 30 kilometers.
“Today, approximately 120 residents of Gali district of Abkhazia rallied against the closure of crossing points on the Abkhaz-Georgian border. Residents of the village of Nabakevi blocked the road leading to the main crossing point,” Temur Nadaraia, the head of the de facto administration of Gali district, said in his statement on January 26.
The administration noted that the chief of Gali District State Security Service Temur Shengelia and local police officers went to the protest site and added that the demonstrators ended protest after “explanatory conversation.”
According to the same report, Head of the de facto administration of Gali said that the residents of villages in southern parts of the district could reach the main crossing point “without obstacles.” He also added that there are “certain forces, linked to illegal cross-border business,” who are “provoking protests.”
The U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi expressed “deep concern” over the proposed closing following Ambassador Ian Kelly’s visit to the two ABL crossings on January 26.
“Closing these crossing points would further restrict freedom of movement for local residents, hurting livelihoods as well as impacting schoolchildren and patients requiring medical treatment. We strongly encourage the de-facto Abkhaz authorities to reconsider these proposed closings and to allow for the movement and access of local citizens to necessary services,” the Embassy stated.
Similar concerns were expressed by the United Nations Georgia office as well. “The United Nations are concerned that the announced restrictions will have negative consequences for the humanitarian and development needs of those living in Abkhazia, Georgia,” UN Resident Coordinator Niels Scott’s January 26 statement said.
The statement also noted that the closure “will likely affect at least 1,000 crossings a day on average.”
“As movement is further restricted, the people of Abkhazia will find it more difficult to access basic services such as healthcare and education and participate in economic activities and social events such as weddings, funerals and public holiday commemorations, as well as family gatherings across the dividing line. Notably, access to education for children who have been crossing to attend schools in their mother tongue will be impeded,” the statement added.
The United Nations urged “relevant parties to consider the impact of the announced closing measure on the welfare of the local residents” and called on “all sides to ensure the rights and needs of all people living in Abkhazia are respected.”
The European Union Monitoring Mission in Georgia (EUMM), which has unarmed monitors on the ground without being able to access the breakaway region, expressed “serious concern” about the planned closure at 42nd meeting of Gali Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism on January 24.
“EUMM expressed serious concern about the announced closure of crossing points, emphasizing the negative impacts such a step would have on the daily lives of local residents who cross the ABL. Special emphasis was put on the challenges to freedom of movement for schoolchildren and for patients crossing for medical care,” EUMM press release stated.
The issue was also raised by the U.S. Mission to the OSCE. In a statement delivered at the Permanent Council on January 19, the Deputy Chief of Mission Kate M. Byrnes said that the planned closure could “further restrict freedom of movement, including of schoolchildren and patients requiring medical treatment.”
At the same meeting, the European Union delivered a statement saying that the closure “will severely restrict the freedom of movement of the population, including school children, on both sides of the Administrative Boundary Line” and called on “corrective measures” to guarantee the freedom of movement.
“This announcement contravenes existing commitments to work towards enhanced security and improved living conditions for the conflict-affected population. Furthermore, it is contrary to efforts to normalize the situation and creates an atmosphere not conducive to longer-term conflict resolution and improving overall stability in the region,” the statement reads.