Even as Georgia continues to fight COVID-19, our government is committed to invest in reconciliation and cooperation across the divides, to deliver long-term peace and stability where it is needed most, argues Ketevan Tsikhelashvili

In the global battle against coronavirus, Georgia has proven to be one of the most effective, with a death toll of 13 people, out of a population of 3.7 million, making our country one of the safest places in Europe.

However, this success has a geography that sadly is defined by Russian occupation of 20 per cent of Georgia's territories, namely the regions of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali/South Ossetia, since 2008. Locked behind 100 km razor wire fences built as physical divides, both are largely isolated from the rest of Georgia. These circumstances added significant complexity and difficulty to the challenge of protecting local populations from COVID-19.

The Georgian government announced early on that we would not abandon any of our population, including the residents of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali, in the face of a global pandemic. Over the past four months, the government has deployed a strategy to firstly combat the virus and protect our citizens, and secondly to accelerate plans for long-term peace and reconciliation.

Sharing timely information and expertise have been crucial, especially as many Russians also rushed to shelter in the occupied territories in Georgia: consider the risk posed by hundreds of cars and even more individuals still arriving well into March.

It is no surprise that all cases reported so far are imported from Russia. Thus, early on, we translated and disseminated the WHO approved recommendations, national guidelines and protocols in the local Abkhazian and Ossetian languages.

Helping on the ground with hygienic or medical supplies through different channels, including in partnership with international organizations, was another way to deliver aid to Abkhazia region.

Diagnosis and treatment on Georgian-controlled territory was another important element. The brand-new Rukhi hospital closest to the occupation line in Abkhazia was rapidly equipped and operationalized as a COVID treatment center.

That was not possible in Tskhinvali. No international access is allowed except for ICRC. Regrettably, the population there, especially the small numbers of remaining Georgians in Akhalgori, find themselves in a full-blown humanitarian crisis..

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The occupied regions still remain highly vulnerable. The situation is further aggravated by the continued process of "borderization" by the Russian Federation. The global pandemic did not deter them from installing new artificial barriers in 12 Georgian villages in last few weeks. That runs counter not only to the international law, but to the basic principles of humanity.

The "borderization" process is accompanied by a massive disinformation strategy and conspiracy theories launched by the occupation regime, primarily targeting Georgia's Lugar Laboratory, the most-advanced US supported research facility in the region which now plays a critical role in containing the virus.

Despite these challenges, the Georgian government is determined to move forward with our signature peace initiative -"A step to a better future" ? which now takes on even more importance than before.

The initiative focuses on trade across the divides, as well as new educational opportunities. To achieve this, new flexible and status-neutral instruments have been proposed and unanimously approved by the Georgian Parliament, and supported by the international community.

The EU Commission described the plan as "an important step towards improving the conditions of citizens and offering avenues for people-to-people contacts and, potentially, reconciliation". Most importantly, it has huge support from within the two territories since 2019 when some instruments became operational.

The peace plan is supplemented by financial instruments to support our goals – a small grants program "Enterprise for a Better Future" that exceeded expectations and initially allotted resources twenty times over.

To meet this tremendous interest we are rapidly moving forward with another instrument called "Peace Fund for a Better Future", which is open for private contributions from domestic and international sources. It offers a concrete possibility of investing in peace, cooperation and reconciliation.

These peace initiatives enable us to improve the dialogue between the communities on both sides of the artificial divides to serve common interests and needs. Last year Georgia more than doubled the number of students welcomed from the occupied territories into Georgian higher education institutions.

The Georgian Government is ready, and the signals are clear from communities across the divide, especially including most recently from the Abkhazia region. Informal contacts have never been so frequent and productive as in the past two years. This is a unique opportunity in the context of the past 25 years, and it is in everyone's interest to act upon it to build confidence that peace and better prospects lie ahead.

Even as we continue to fight COVID-19, and as people continue to suffer under occupation, our government is committed   to invest in  reconciliation and cooperation across the divides, to deliver long-term peace and stability where it is needed most.

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