Article, Global

Caucasus: the way out of chaos

06.12.2021, International cooperation

Switzerland’s new cooperation strategy in South Caucasus – Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – focuses on developing depopulated regions and integrating ethnic minorities and migrants.

Isolda Agazzi
Isolda Agazzi

Expert on trade and investment policy / Media relations French-speaking part of Switzerland

Caucasus: the way out of chaos

© Isolda Agazzi

It is still dark at six in the morning as Aleksander, a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, set off from home at a brisk pace to milk his cows. "This is really women's work, but I'm doing it today", says Aleksander, who studied mathematics at Tbilisi University then returned to his native village in South Georgia to care for his elderly mother. Together with his wife, who is just preparing breakfast, he has installed a couple of guest rooms to supplement his modest farmer’s income. Is the milking done by machine? "No it is done by hand", he replies in broken English, which he is learning from his daughter who attends primary school in the village. The abundance of fruit, vegetables and flowers growing in his garden can be found all over Georgia. In summer, they submerge this village, at an altitude of 1,300 metres, in a veritable sea of colour. But winters are tough: the house is heated with a wood stove, as the gas supply, recognisable elsewhere from the pipelines that can be seen all over the country, does not reach this remote region close to the border with Turkey and Armenia.

Low-yield farming

"Switzerland has a strong presence in Georgia, where it supports agriculture and livestock farming", says Danielle Meuwly, head of Swiss development cooperation in South Caucasus, as she receives us in her Tbilisi office. There is an enormous urban-rural divide: 40 per cent of the people work in agriculture, which nonetheless produces very low yields and makes up just eight per cent of GDP."

There is great inequality in the country: in 2021, the Gini coefficient[i] was 36.4, which places it 89th in the US World Population Review country rankings.

To promote agricultural expertise, Switzerland has mounted a vocational training project in conjunction with the Plantahof Institute. A programme has been launched jointly with the NGO Swisscontact to support small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in rural areas, and is expected to help boost farmers' incomes. Switzerland is also committed to preserving forests within the meaning of the new Forestry Law, which tightly regulates logging. The law still lacks popular acceptance, however, and for the most part, people like Aleksander need to be offered an alternative to wood-fired cooking and heating.

Switzerland as representative of Russian interests in Georgia and vice versa

This remit is part of the new 2022-2025 Swiss Cooperation Strategy in South Caucasus, to be published in early December. "It is a regional strategy that also encompasses Armenia and Azerbaijan and is being implemented jointly by the SDC, Seco and the Peace and Human Rights Division of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs", Danielle Meuwly continues. "For practical reasons, and because the country receives the biggest budget, we maintain our office in Georgia. The Confederation's involvement in this region is significant – more specifically, its role here is a protective one." In the wake of the war in August 2008 and Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia severed diplomatic ties with Moscow. Since 2009, Switzerland has been representing Russia's interests in Georgia and Georgia's interests in Russia.

In the extremely impoverished Abkhazia region, where international humanitarian aid is needed, projects have been launched, as part of Swiss cooperation, to upgrade sanitary facilities in schools and train women in cheese-making under hygienic conditions.

Integrating ethnic and religious minorities

Beyond diplomatic concerns, we endeavour to build a bridge and foster cooperation between the civil societies on both sides", says Medea Turashvili, who is responsible for human safety matters. "We endeavour to safeguard the rights of religious minorities and ethnic groups." This cannot be taken for granted in a country that has continuously been besieged by Mongols, Turks, Arabs, Persians and Russians. Embodied by the powerful Georgian Orthodox Church, religion has always been a refuge and today remains a key element of the national identity.

Although Orthodox Christians are in the majority, there are also Georgian Muslims, Azeris, Chechens, Armenians and other minorities, who are hardly integrated. "Members of ethnic and religious minorities often do not speak the Georgian language, as the education system is such that they are unable to learn it properly", says Danielle Meuwly. "They have much stronger ties with their communities of origin than with their immediate surroundings. Our goal is to reduce this alienation so that the various communities can live together in peace. In the south of the country where there is a large Azerbaijani community, service centres have been opened to provide information to the population in the Azerbaijani language. We sat down with the political parties ahead of the 2018 and 2020 elections to work out a code of conduct."

Helping migrants to integrate

There are numerous orchards and vineyards in the Kakheti region in the east of the country. The region is famous for its wine. Georgia is reputed to be where winegrowing originated and to this day, families still produce their own wine in their cellars. The image of the villages is nevertheless dominated by countless abandoned houses with their finely-worked wooden balconies falling to pieces. Most of the residents, and especially the young generation, are going abroad. In a country where the average monthly wage is 300-400 euros, they are seeking greener pastures in Western Europe – the men often as construction industry workers and the women as domestic helpers. Georgia has a population of almost four million, of which 1.7 million are migrant workers.

Their money remittances are an indispensable source of income for families back home. In Switzerland, Georgia occupies fifth place among the countries of origin of asylum seekers, as the Schengen Visa requirement was waived for its nationals in 2018. They have no chance of being recognised as refugees, however, and are systematically turned down. There are Swiss cooperation projects being run in Kakheti and other provinces for the reintegration of former migrants and for the revitalisation of communities.

Alliance Sud welcomes the fact that Switzerland supports the social and economic reintegration of returnees, but nonetheless urges the country not to make its aid dependent on the readmission of rejected asylum seekers, as it committed itself to do. Given the labour shortages in so many professional fields, Alliance Sud calls on the Federal Council to adopt a sustainable migration policy that allows migrants to find work in Switzerland, apart from clandestine employment.


[i] This coefficient is used to measure income inequality in a country. The Gini coefficient is a number between 0 and 1 (often also expressed as a percentage), where 0 means absolute inequality.

Independent but closely monitored civil society

Civil society is a key player in Georgia. It is funded mostly by Western donors, including Switzerland, and its relations with the government are marked by highs and lows.

“We can largely carry out our activities without obstructions, but in recent years the ruling party tends to discredit critical CSOs with baseless accusations of lacking the competency or working in line with opposition parties and this tendency seems to become persistent. Such harsh statements and hostile attitudes complicate advocating our recommendations with different branches of government”, says Vakhtang Menabde, Director of the Programme for the Support of Democratic Institutions of the Georgian Young Lawyers Association (Gyla).

Georgia has been ruled since 2012 by the Georgian Dream Party, which succeeded the United National Movement. The latter had severely curtailed the independence of the justice system and civil society freedoms, according to the activist. Some liberalisation processes began in the wake of the 2012 elections. “Sadly, even though several waves of reforms were launched, most of them improved only some flaws in the system and superficially decorated its façade but did not change the real institutional characteristics. Therefore, unfortunately, today independence of the judiciary in Georgia is sternly restrained”, he continues.

As regards the role of civil society, for years now the Gyla NGO has been militating for reforms to the justice system, local government and voting rights. Vakhtang Menabde does indeed welcome the fact that many of his recommendations have found their way into law, but the key proposals that would lead to genuine changes in the power structure have been ignored. “To sum up, civil societies in Georgia operate mostly in a free, but very polarized and tense environment”, Vakhtang Menabde concludes.

That apart, several recent scandals have revealed that civil society activists, journalists and political associations have been under close surveillance by State security services. In an open letter published in August, a dozen NGOs denounced the disproportionate powers of the State Security Service and its attacks on privacy.

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