Reaching Georgia's Occupied Territories through Exchanges: People-to-People Contact and the Fight against Anti-Western Narratives
by Julius Tsai
American Ambassadors Review, Spring 2019
In 2018, the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi initiated people-to-people (P2P) exchanges to the United States for agricultural scientists and university leaders from the Russian-occupied Georgian territory of Abkhazia. An initial study tour in the spring of 2018 focused on mitigating the devastating agricultural damage from the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (BMSB), and a second tour in the fall of 2018 focused on higher education leadership. Despite political sensitivities and logistical hurdles, such people-to-people programs increase participants’ understanding of the United States and give them an unbiased, first-hand experience of American civil society, its culture of innovation and democratic values. For otherwise isolated Abkhaz thought leaders, these experiences directly counter Russian anti-Western propaganda and demonstrate the benefits of Georgia’s pro-Western choice.
Unique Challenges and Opportunities in Engaging Abkhazia
Political sensitivities stemming from the 2008 Georgia-Russia war and the subsequent Russian occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia sharply limit U.S. outreach to the territories, which constitute roughly 20 percent of Georgia. On a practical level, it can be challenging (for embassy personnel) to connect with fruitful contacts, identify exchange participants and arrange travel between the occupied territories and the United States. For example, since the United States and all but five other countries support Georgia’s territorial integrity and reject Abkhazia’s claim to independence, Abkhaz travel documents are generally not valid for international travel. This makes the seemingly straightforward task of obtaining U.S. visas for exchange travelers a delicate maneuver. Moreover, exchange participants from Abkhazia often need to overcome significant challenges that come with participation in such exchanges, including questioning and pressure from local officials.
In early 2018, Tbilisi’s Public Affairs Officer visited Sokhumi, the largest city in Abkhazia, to establish contacts in nongovernmental organizations and academia. These contacts proved invaluable in helping the Public Affairs Section (PAS) shape the two exchanges—in the first, a collaboration with the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Action against Hunger, and in the second, a joint effort in which the Mission’s Tbilisi-based partners leveraged their deep ties to the Sokhumi academic world to put together a diverse group of educational administrators from the occupied territories.
While putting together these exchanges, Embassy Tbilisi also worked with other U.S. missions to arrange logistics, particularly benefiting from the excellent cooperation of the Public Affairs and Consular Affairs sections at Embassy Yerevan, where the Abkhaz travelers were able to apply for and interview for their J-1 visas.
The March 2018 agricultural tour brought six Sokhumi-based and two Tbilisi-based participants to the U.S. Mid-Atlantic region to witness the impact of the BMSB; identify key research that could mitigate BMSB damage to South Caucasus agriculture and see how universities, industry organizations and farmers collaborate to manage agricultural threats. Exchange partners included scientists and agriculture professionals from the University of Maryland, Pennsylvania State University, Virginia Tech, Rutgers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The September 2018 exchange delegation comprised five education leaders from Abkhazia State University in Sokhumi and three from Sokhumi State University in Tbilisi. The group traveled to California and Arizona to gain first-hand insights into innovative trends in higher education leadership, management and financing, as well as best practices for internationalizing higher education, including through institutional and faculty partnerships. Exchange participants interacted with counterparts from community colleges as well as public and private universities, including San Diego State University and Arizona State University.
These exchanges are part of the broader context of PAS Tbilisi’s ongoing engagement with people in the occupied territories as well as internally displaced persons communities in Georgia, with a focus on fostering civil society and economic development and countering Russian disinformation. Implementing partners include the Europe Foundation, which works to foster P2P contact among ethnic Abkhaz and Georgian youth and reduce susceptibility to extremist messages; the Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation, which supports civil society groups in the South Caucasus, especially among marginalized populations; the Women’s Association of Gali Region, which supports women’s empowerment through tech skills and the Bringing Georgia and Abkhazia Together Through English program, which is training new generations of English-language teachers in the occupied territories.
Higher Education Exchange: “We Were Able to Find a Common Language”
The September 2018 higher education leadership tour to California and Arizona provides a case study of the unique challenges and opportunities accompanying exchanges involving the occupied territories. One of the Tbilisi-based group members remarked about three unique features of this particular exchange that contributed to its success. First, the organizers invited first-time exchange participants from Abkhazia as opposed to those who had participated in earlier international exchanges with established EU and NGO organizers. Second, the participants were elite decision makers in Abkhaz educational and civic circles who were able to effect change upon their return. Third, in contrast to exchange programs to Western Europe, the prospect of visiting the United States itself was a key motivator; the chance to interact personally with Americans and witness U.S. society and culture first-hand was the “ultimate dream” for the Abkhaz participants—a testament to the enduring nature of U.S. soft power.
Participants in the higher education tour characterized the visit as a “breakthrough.” Those from Abkhazia reported being “blown away” and “without words” at witnessing university facilities, information systems and the leadership displayed at flagship state universities such as Arizona State University and San Diego State University. In particular, many of the Sokhumi-based participants, initially expecting only staged official meetings, were struck by the intellectual openness and independence of their U.S. counterparts, whether students, professors or administrators. Such encounters encouraged new thinking among participants about the future possibilities for higher education in Abkhazia.
Within the group itself, the Sokhumi and Tbilisi participants reported that their attitudes changed significantly over the course of the exchange. The personal chemistry between the diverse exchange participants progressed from being described as “cold as ice” on the first day, to tentative trust, to genuine bonding and heartfelt commitments to continue the dialogue between Sokhumi and Tbilisi. One of the Abkhaz participants exclaimed, “Through the visit, it became clear to me that we just need to talk to each other. I don’t understand why we can’t just come to the table and talk to each other like sensible people.”
Some of the challenges during the trip included U.S. university hosts’ sometimes being unaware of the political sensitivities related to the group’s Sokhumi-Tbilisi composition, which led to certain awkward and potentially fractious situations. Fortunately, many such situations were mitigated or resolved due to intensive personal diplomacy by the group facilitators and committed group members, who provided context to hosts and worked around the clock to build trust within the group.
All participants agreed on the need for continuing exchange activities between Sokhumi and Tbilisi. There was a consensus that such exchanges would work best when kept at a low-key level and when focused on building working-level capacity, distinct from ongoing political processes, including the Geneva International Discussions and the Georgian government’s outreach efforts to the occupied territories. Since the exchange visit, alumni from both Sokhumi and Tbilisi have remained in touch and are actively discussing future educational exchange activities to take place in Georgia. Alumni opined that they would “spare no effort” to further the channel of dialogue that had been opened up, and they urged the embassy to continue supporting such P2P exchanges.
People-to-people exchanges can make inroads in even the most challenging and seemingly deadlocked political situations. Major lessons learned from the 2018 Abkhaz exchange delegations to the United States include the desirability of deeper cultural engagement to complement professional meetings and advance understanding of U.S. society and culture, the need to enhance the overall awareness of U.S. exchange partnering organizations to the political sensitivities of mixed “Sokhumi-Tbilisi” delegations and the importance of translating momentum from the U.S. visits into follow-up exchanges in Georgia and the South Caucasus region. Embassy Tbilisi looks forward to continuing people-to-people exchanges as an effective way to influence Abkhaz leaders directly, moving them closer to a pro-Western orientation and away from Russian influence.
Julius Tsai is the Cultural Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia. He is a 2017-2018 Kathryn W. Davis Public Diplomacy Fellow.