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Abkhazian opposition once again speaks out against issuing passports to Georgian residents

The issuing of Abkhazian passports to Georgian residents in the Gali District remains controversial. The Georgian government considers the passports illegal anyway, but it has in the past in particular condemned the alleged forcing of passport onto Georgians. Ironically, the Abkhazian opposition thinks Georgians are being given passports too easily. In the run-up to the 2009 Presidential election, it achieved a temporary moratorium. It has now again raised the issue, after the Interior Ministry's Passport Service announced that since 2008, 16,096 Georgians had received an Abkhazian passport in Gali District, 6217 in Ochamchira District and 2453 in Tquarchal District.

The concern of the opposition is twofold. First, it claims that most Georgians have not lived in Abkhazia for at least five years immediately prior to 1999, and therefore, according to Abkhazian citizenship law, need to apply for naturalisation. To achieve this, however, they must prove that they have renounced Georgian citizenship. Second, it alleges that the government applies the procedures so carelessly because Georgians once naturalised are then allowed to vote, and will vote for the government.

The latter concern is probably warranted, even if the procedures are applied correctly. In particular, Georgian voters (who did not at the time require passports to vote) played a decisive role in the 2004 Presidential election, in which current opposition leader Raul Khajimba (then Prime Minister) suffered a first round defeat.

At the heart of the first issue sits a dilemma faced by governments around the world. Interior minister Otar Khetsia has responded to the opposition appeal with the assurance that all succesful Georgians applicants for Abkhazian citizenship hand in all the paperwork required by law, including a written statement through which they renounce their Georgian citizenship. But as much as it would like to, a state has no power over whether someone is a citizen of another state, nor even does that person themself. This is because citizenship is in essence no more than a series of legal rights and obligations which a state grants to and expects from a person. For instance, the Kingdom of Morocco considers all descendents of its citizens to also be its citizens, regardless of whether they want to be. This has thwarted Dutch efforts to end the dual citizenship of its Moroccan citizens. In the case at hand, no written statement will change that Georgia continues to consider Georgian applicants for Abkhazian citizenship its own citizens. The Abkhazian opposition might conclude that the government should therefore deny Abkhazian citizenship to Georgian residents, but ironically that would mean giving Georgia a veto in Abkhazian citizenship law. (And of course Georgia considers all residents of Abkhazia its citizens.)

The government policy to actively pursue the adoption of passports in the Gali District is the right one. It is an important step towards integrating Georgians into Abkhazian society, and removing their second-class status. Their loyalty will remain split between Abkhazia and Georgia, but this is the case whether or not they retain Georgian citizenship, and only true integration can generate appreciation for the Abkhazian state.

Finally, there is also a legal argument why Abkhazia should not require residents of the Gali District to give up Georgian citizenship. As in other nation states with large diasporas like Armenia and Israel, all ethnic Abkhaz around the world are automatically Abkhazian citizens, and may retain any other citizenship they possess. Since Abkhazia maintains that the residents of the Gali District are descendents of ethnic Abkhaz who gradually assimilated into Mingrelians in the 19th and 20th century (as Khetsia points out), it should not be too hard to fit them under this provision.

Category: Abkhazia, Georgia

Tagged: Gali, passports