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Georgia: European Commission Highlights 'Forgotten Crisis' In Western Georgia, Abkhazia

The European Commission has decided to allocate 4 million euros ($4.8 million) in humanitarian aid for western Georgia, including Abkhazia. Commission officials say the international community is largely overlooking what they describe as a "forgotten crisis" -- the legacy of the conflict between Georgia and the breakaway republic. In an interview with RFE/RL, the head of the commission's humanitarian aid office (ECHO) in Moscow, Philippe Royan, explains the gravity of the situation.

Brussels, 30 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A little more than two months ago, Georgia netted a windfall of $1 billion at an international donors conference.

Yet, the situation in some areas of the country remains so dire that urgent humanitarian assistance is needed.

Officials in Brussels say the European Commission was trying to highlight one such case on 24 August when it decided to make 4 million euros in humanitarian aid available to western Georgia, including Abkhazia.

Philippe Royan is the European Union's top aid official in Moscow, responsible for Russia, the North Caucasus, Georgia, and Mongolia.

In a telephone interview with RFE/RL, he said the international community has largely ignored the consequences of the festering conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia. He said the conflict is still responsible for large-scale suffering.

"It affects all sectors, the main one being access to food. There is food in Abkhazia. There is food in [the western] Mingrelia [region, also known as Samegrelo]. The problem is for the people to access economically this food. And [there's] also the shelter problem, especially for displaced persons in Mingrelia, and access to primary health care. Those are the three main sectors of activity where ECHO decided to intervene in 2004," Royan said.

A European Commission background document, seen by RFE/RL, calls Abkhazia a "devastated region." It says its population has shrunk from an estimated 500,000 before the war to 100,000 to 150,000. Up to one-fifth of the remaining population is destitute, most of it elderly.

The report says Abkhazia's infrastructure is disrupted and that there is an "absence of economic opportunities." The economy has shrunk by 80 to 90 percent in 15 years, and unemployment is around 90 percent.

The price of a minimum monthly food basket in Abkhazia is approximately 30 euros. The basic Abkhaz pension amounts to three euros a month.

Tens of thousands of displaced persons still live on the other side of the demarcation line in Georgia proper.

Royan says the EU's donations -- totalling 90 million euros in the 1990s -- dried up toward the decade's end. He says international donors largely succumbed to what he calls "donor fatigue."

ECHO returned to Abkhazia and its environs in 2002.

Royan says that, despite the $1 billion in pledges in June, no fresh funding is available to cover humanitarian needs.

Royan says Georgia's recent reforms are still not benefiting everybody.

"We aim to play a role in this new wind blowing across Georgia, I would say, [evidenced by] this package of reforms announced since November last year and the resumption of some development programs which were a bit blocked because of difficulties with the previous authorities. And ECHO has a role to play here, I believe, to help the [parts] of Georgian society which will not benefit in the short term from these development programs," Royan said.

He says the total humanitarian needs in western Georgia, including Abkhazia, are hard to estimate.

Apart from food aid, the EU is also funding food-for-work programs, which could help households slowly become self-sufficient.

Mother and child health-care programs are another priority. The European Commission study says 75 percent of pregnant women do not consult a doctor on a regular basis and only 10 percent have post-delivery consultations.

The EU is also funding the rehabilitation of dozens of derelict refugee centers outside Abkhazia.

Royan says the standoff between Georgia and the rebels in Abkhazia does not affect the aid effort in a major way, although minor headaches are routine.

"It's going quite well, I would say, as long as an operation has clearly separated its activities in Abkhazia from its activities in Georgia. [Our] relations with the local authorities, the de facto authorities [of Abkhazia], are quite satisfactory. We could witness that during our missions to the field [and] meeting with local authorities. There have been some problems sometimes [though]. For example, to take a very simple example, it is very difficult still to have a car registered in Georgia [travel] from Zugdidi to Sukhumi," Royan said.

Officials in Brussels say ECHO is likely to remain committed to western Georgia well after the remit of the current aid decision runs out in 15 months.