On September 18, a special commission formed to probe the lawfulness of issuing Abkhazian passports (i.e. granting Abkhazian “citizenship”) to ethnic Georgians from the Gali district presented its report to the parliament of the breakaway territory of Abkhazia. The commission came to the conclusion that granting citizenship to the vast majority of Georgians in Abkhazia was unlawful from a legal standpoint and that the process of issuing passports suffered from significant legal breaches (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=26487).
In particular, Abkhazian legislation forbids citizens of Abkhazia from holding dual citizenship with any other state, apart from Russia. Abkhazia’s de facto ruling authorities suspect that Georgians who live in the Gali district, which is adjacent to Georgian territory controlled by Tbilisi, hold Georgian citizenship along with Abkhazian citizenship (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=26053). Consequently, the commission insisted that the general prosecutor’s office and the municipal authorities must demand that Georgians seeking an Abkhazian passport need to not only provide a verbal statement about renouncing their Georgian citizenship, but also present an official document from the Georgian Ministry of Justice or other Georgian government bodies that would confirm they have abandoned their Georgian citizenship. If, however, any Georgian who lives in the Gali district of Abkhazia fails to provide such an official notice, he will be stripped of his or her Abkhazian citizenship and, under the best scenario, will receive a “residence permit” enabling him or her to reside on Abkhazia’s territory. However, the owner of this Abkhazian “green card” will have no rights to buy property, open a bank account or make use of any other privileges available to the citizens of Abkhazia.
Issuing passports to the population of Gali has been actively discussed not only in the Abkhazian parliament, but in Abkhaz society as a whole. The majority of Abkhaz people are in favor of stripping ethnic Georgians of their citizenship on the grounds of their “disloyalty” to the idea of Abkhazia’s independence. Ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia are viewed as unreliable from the standpoint of the Abkhazian state. Moreover, many fear that 30,000 ethnic Georgians who are also citizens of Abkhazia may “negatively” impact the results of local presidential or parliamentary elections. Currently, ethnic Abkhaz occupy the vast majority of the breakaway region’s parliament’s seats.
The idea of granting citizenship to Georgians in the first place was born in Sukhumi in the run up to the presidential elections of 2009. Many Abkhazian political activists, especially those supporting President Sergei Bagapsh, thought that Georgians from Gali would vote for Bagapsh, rather than his rival, former KGB officer Raul Kajimba (http://www.mk.ru/politics/article/2013/09/18/917658-gruzin-v-abhazii-lishat-pasportov-i-grazhdanstva.html). Not by chance, the current opposition, led by Khajimba, is the main instigator of the present campaign to strip Gali Georgians of their Abkhazian passports. Bagapsh died in office in May 2011, and the new head of Abkhazia, Alexander Ankvab, is seen as having been extremely close to the last president. Thus, the Georgian population of the Gali district has long been a tool in the electoral struggle between competing groups of Abkhaz elites.
Furthermore, because Gali’s ethnic Georgians have become completely resigned to the idea of Abkhazian statehood, the local authorities regard them as a certain counterbalance to other ethnic groups in Abkhazia—Russians and Armenians. Together, Russians and Armenians comprise about half of Abkhazia’s population, while ethnic Abkhaz and Georgians, combined, comprise the other half (http://slon.ru/world/v_abkhazskom_parlamente_net_russkikh-764120.xhtml).
President Bagapsh was inclined to regard Georgians in Gali as “Georgianized Abkhazians.” According to Bagapsh, these were actually ethnic Abkhaz people who were “Georgianized” during the long process of the Georgianization of Abkhazia that culminated during the rule of Joseph Stalin and Lavrenti Beria. So in his official speeches, Bagapsh often added the Gali Georgians to population estimates of the Abkhaz, disregarding the fact that they still thought of themselves as ethnic Georgians, rather than Abkhaz (http://www.mgimo.ru/news/guests/document143693.phtml).
All schools with Georgian as the language of instruction have since been closed in the Gali district (http://abkhazeti.info/abkhazia/2013/1377048996.php), and it is plausible that Sukhumi’s assimilationist policies will lead to a change in the local population’s ethnic self-identification over time. Against the background of this long-term policy, the practice of stripping Georgians, living in Abkhazia, of Abkhazian citizenship and passports looks like an attempt to reach short-term political objectives. But this approach is likely to create a backlash against Abkhazian statehood itself and negatively affect its economy.
Only Russia and several small countries have recognized Abkhazia so far. Most Georgians living in Gali will likely be forced to leave the breakaway republic, which may stir international condemnation of Abkhazia’s policies. Furthermore, the most socially active part of the population is likely to emigrate. These very people normally maintain strong ties to Georgia, often cross the de facto border, engage in trade and other businesses, send their children to schools on the Georgian side of the border in Zugdidi and Tsalenjikha districts and, overall, are a “bridge” between Georgia and Abkhazia.
Gali Georgians can often be encountered at the Zugdidi market. They buy produce in Georgia and sell it in Abkhazia. The same produce imported from Russia to Abkhazia is normally overly expensive. “If not for this market, fruits and vegetables in Abkhazia would be impossible to buy because they are so expensive in the neighboring Krasnodar region of Russia,” a resident of the Gali district, Ketevan E., who asked that her last name be withheld, told Jamestown (Author’s interview, September 27). Moreover, according to Ketevan, “The Gali district is the breadbasket of Abkhazia; if it becomes empty, famine might ensue in Abkhazia.” Indeed, Gali is practically the only district of the Abkhaz republic that grows other agricultural produce apart from citrus cultures and tea. The economy of other districts of Abkhazia is almost exclusively reliant on tourism. However, tourist flows will dry up if the food prices become equal to those in Sochi. The majority of tourists come to Abkhazia precisely because of its low prices in comparison to neighboring Russian regions on the Black Sea.
Abkhazian leaders themselves repeatedly recognized that a complete blockade of the Georgian-Abkhazian border, which is presently guarded by Russian border guards, would lead to a further deterioration of the economic situation and result in price hikes across Abkhazia. So even though the opposition in Abkhazia raised the issue of a complete shutdown of the border with Georgia, officials in Sukhumi are not keen on destroying all their bridges with Georgia (http://apsny.ru/analytics/?ID=1443). However, if the decision about stripping Georgians—who make up 15 percent of the population—of their Abkhazian passports on ethnic grounds is finally passed, not only will Abkhazia’s economy suffer, but so will its international reputation.