Jobs are hard to come by in Abkhazia’s eastern Gali District, according to the ethnic Georgians who predominantly make up the district’s population. They say that nepotism and discrimination, both direct and indirect, have made unemployment rife. Some go to Sukhumi to the city’s highly unsafe construction sites, while others are leaving for greener pastures.
Hard and unbearable — this is how Gali’s inhabitants describe life in the district. While many fled during the 1992–1993 war, most ethnic Georgians returned to Gali when it ended. Some, especially older people, never left. Today many ask if returning was a mistake.
Unemployment is endemic in Gali; local residents complain that there are almost no jobs available and that almost everyone survives with agriculture. They complain that even when vacancies open, jobs are impossible to get without a personal connection, and that dzveli bichoba, a gangster subculture with its own honour code that thrived in the 1990s, also plays a role in this issue.
The only exception, according to many local residents, is the village of Saberio, where thanks to the Enguri Hydroelectric Power Station, most people have jobs.
Public sector jobs in Gali
Despite Gali’s predominantly Georgian population, local residents tell OC Media that law enforcement agencies refuse to hire ethnic Georgians. They say that none of their police officers are locals, and that instead, ethnic Abkhaz from other districts are brought in. Upper-level public sector positions are only held by Georgians with strong connections or who self-identify as Abkhaz.
Even if ethnic Georgians in Gali were given the opportunity to serve in law enforcement agencies, it’s unclear if many would.
Dato (not his real name), 28, was given the opportunity to work as a customs officer at the Enguri Bridge. He said he was serving in the Abkhazian army when he received the offer, but turned it down without thinking twice as he considered it immoral.
‘Food, furniture, and other goods are cheaper in Zugdidi than in Gali, so people go there to shop. How could I take money from these people? Or, if I were working in the police station, how could I arrest the men, women, and children with no Abkhazian documents who are trying to go to Zugdidi’, he said.
But Khatia, 22, said she would work in Gali’s police station if she could. ‘I would at least speak to people politely’, Khatia tells OC Media. ‘I wouldn’t take bribes, wouldn’t refuse to fingerprint someone because their hands are blackened from work. Basically, I would treat people like human beings’, she says.
Unlike the police, schools, kindergartens, banks, and hospitals in Gali are mostly staffed by ethnic Georgians, but a lack of recognition of Georgian diplomas makes hiring problematic. While many ethnic Georgians from Abkhazia manage to pass Georgia’s national exams and continue to study at Georgian universities, (this has been fully financed by Georgia’s Ministry of Education since 2008), public-sector jobs in Abkhazia require a degree from an Abkhazian university.
After graduating from secondary school in Kokhora, just north of Gali, in 2009, Zaza (not his real name), 26, wanted to continue his studies at a university in Sukhumi, in the faculty of linguistics. He was an only child and his family thought a diploma from Sukhumi would help him find a job. He recalls that he had prepared all the required documents and was ready to apply.
‘When my Abkhaz language teacher heard about my decision, she was very surprised. I’ll never forget what she told me: “Are you really going to study in Sukhumi with your surname?” ’
Zaza’s surname ends with ‘dze’, marking it as Georgian. He said his teacher eventually persuaded him not to study in Sukhumi with Abkhaz students. He received his bachelor’s degree in Zugdidi instead, but is currently unemployed. He adds that he does not regret his decision, as he’s heard about incidents between ethnic Georgian and Abkhaz students in Sukhumi.
Another Georgian described the consequences of studying outside Abkhazia. ‘I have a Georgian diploma and an Abkhazian passport, but it [expires] in December this year. What should I do then, where should I go? I’m not going to pay ₽100,000 ($1,600) for an Abkhazian passport. Even if I were to pay, what about my family? Where would I get enough money for them? We have no choice but to leave our home’.
Dangerous construction sites
Many of those who cannot find a job in Gali go to Sukhumi to work on construction sites. The construction workers who spoke to OC Media said the work is dangerous and labour safety practices are ignored, but that the pay is worth it. When asked whether they use helmets, respiratory masks, first-aid kits, or any other safety equipment, they answered that they’d forgotten that this equipment even exists.
Giorgi (not his real name), his father, and his older brother used to work on a construction site in Sukhumi. Their wages were determined by how much they worked, but on average they made around ₽30,000–₽50,000 ($480–$790) per month.
‘One day, my father hit his head against the wall three times. That was our first time working in Sukhumi and we never went back’, Giorgi tells OC Media.
Temur (not his real name), 21, from Gali was working on a construction site in Sukhumi five months ago when he broke his jaw from a three-storey fall. After the injury, he decided not to return to work.
‘I could’ve been much more seriously injured from the fall. I didn’t have any kind of [safety] equipment — no one has it there’, he said.
‘I don’t want to be a slave’
Giorgi Santeladze, a Chief Specialist at Georgia’s Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons told OC Media that in recent years especially, many people from Gali were moving to Georgia’s Samegrelo Region.
While anecdotal reports suggest the conditions in Gali have driven many young people across the Enguri River seeking new opportunities, the ministry could not give data on the number of people from Gali moving to Samegrelo. They instead referred to Georgia’s Ministry for Reconciliation, who said this was not within their mandate.
Nika (not his real name), 20, from the village of Saberio, says he wants to start a business selling kiwis, but that to do so, he will need to buy land in Georgian-controlled territory. Although Nika owns land in Abkhazia, and it would be ideal for him and his family to start the business in their village, he says it’s not possible due to high taxes and no market for his idea.
‘I love my house and my village, but I don’t want to be a slave of the Abkhaz. My parents don’t want me to leave home, but they also understand the situation. We see injustices and degrading treatment by the authorities, but we can’t speak out about it. I cannot and will not stand it’, he said.
OC Media sent multiple requests for comment to Abkhazia’s de facto Public Defender, President’s Office, and Gali District administration, as well as to the Centre for Humanitarian Programmes, an organisation known for advocating for the rights of ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia. None responded.
This article was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Regional Office in the South Caucasus. All opinions expressed, and terminology used are the words of the author alone, and may not necessarily reflect the views of FES or the OC Media editorial board.