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Analysis, book reviews and photography from Abkhazia and the wider Caucasus — updates when time permits

Reports of Abkhazia’s impending annexation are exaggerated

According to the most spurious headlines, Abkhazia’s annexation by Russia has just about already happened. And even some serious news outlets and commentators proclaim that the proposed Treaty on Alliance and Integration is a step in that direction and constitutes in terms of sovereignty a point of no return. But what exactly does the treaty say?

Many parts seem harmless. There is a common defence clause, similar to Article 5 of the NATO charter, and articles on economic harmonisation and financial and political assistance from Russia to Abkhazia.

The problematic clauses were exactly those that have met with most resistance by Abkhazians and that have now been addressed in a counter-proposal by the Abkhazian government, the Treaty on Alliance and Strategic Partnership. These were the provision that in case of war, Russia shall provide the Chief in Command of the joint army, that a joint body will investigate crime in Abkhazia, that the two countries will coordinate their foreign policy and the relaxed procedure for Russians to obtain Abkhazian citizenship.

None of this amounts to anything near annexation. Yes, a treaty can take on significance beyond its literal content. But there was no particular reason to believe that was the case here, and so the annexation rhetoric is if anything a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Of course, there is a real threat, which has long been known: the near total economical and political dependence of Abkhazia on Russia. But Georgia and the West have themselves to blame for this. Moreover, they cannot protest Russia curtailing Abkhazia’s sovereignty as long as they don’t recognise this sovereignty in the first place. Naturally, Georgia has used the threat of Russian annexation to try to win over Abkhaz hearts and minds. But a) this is not credible in light of the fact that the alternative it is offering to possible annexation by Russia is certain annexation by Georgia. And b) most Abkhaz would consider annexation by Russia by far the lesser evil.

That being said, the West and Georgia should try to defend Abkhazia against overbearing Russian influence. Unfortunately, there may not be much they can do, without explicitly appealing to Abkhazia’s independence. The current rhetoric, framed negatively against Russia, may have the counterproductive effect of weakening Abkhazian resistance to (parts of) this treaty. And the war in Ukraine has demonstrated that silent diplomacy may no longer stop Russia from overstepping certain boundaries.

Abkhazia is in the difficult situation that it needs economic and political support from Russia, and has little to offer in return but its sovereignty. The West should start to provide serious economic and governmental assistance to Abkhazia to undercut this logic.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Georgia, Russia,

Tuvalu re-establishes diplomatic ties with Georgia following EU pressure

On 31 March Georgia and Tuvalu re-established diplomatic relations. Georgia had previously broken off diplomatic relations on 16 February 2012, after Tuvalu had recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The signed document reportedly includes a statement that Tuvalu considers Abkhazia and South Ossetia to be part of Georgia. This is a political victory for Georgia — even if it is dubious whether recognition can legally be withdrawn and even though Abkhazia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Irakli Khintba reported that as of 31 March, Tuvalu had not formally broken off diplomatic relations with Abkhazia. It would not be so significant had Abkhazia and South Ossetia managed to obtain further recognitions in the meantime, but they haven’t, so it is.

But this decision is also significant for another reason. In an interview with Radio New Zealand International, Tuvalu’s Foreign Minister Taukelina Finikaso explained the recent about-face by stating that he hoped that financial assistance from the European Union would now increase, after having slumped following Tuvalu’s original recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This demonstrates the hypocrisy behind complaints that recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was ‘bought’ by Russia through financial assistance. One should not have doubted that western countries are not above such tactics, but it is nonetheless instructive to receive explicit confirmation.

Filed under: Abkhazia, European Union, Georgia, South Ossetia, The Great Recognition Game, Tuvalu

Behind the scenes, struggle over recognition of Abkhazia by Pacific countries continues

There has not been much news recently regarding Abkhazia’s attempts to achieve more widespread diplomatic recognition, or attempts by Georgia to undo these efforts. But two tidbits of information in recent days indicate that, behind the scenes, this struggle is still very much ongoing.

On 19 November, Vanuatu’s Daily Post reported that the opposition had made public an email alleged to have been sent to Prime Minister Moana Carcasses Kalosil and Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Edward Natapei, urging them to reconsider breaking off relations with Abkhazia and suggesting that the decision to establish relations with Georgia instead had been made in return for ‘lobbying assistance’ (apparently in the form of funds to be transferred through Georgia’s embassy in London) to achieve a change in government in Vanuatu (at the time Natapei was one of the leaders of the opposition).

Today, Georgia’s Minister for Reintegration announced before Parliament that efforts were ongoing to convince one of the countries that recognise Abkhazia’s independence to ‘undo’ this decision, apparently hinting at Tuvalu, which recently saw a change in government.

Time will tell what will come of this.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Georgia, The Great Recognition Game, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, , , ,

Stanislav Lakoba loses Security Council Secretariat over passport policy — again

In the ongoing row over whether local authorities in Abkhazia’s Gali, Ochamchira and Tquarchal Districts have been handing out passports to Georgian residents too liberally, Stanislav Lakoba has been fired as Secretary of the Security Council on 28 October. His replacement is veteran politician Nugzar Ashuba, who was Speaker of Parliament before suffering a second-round defeat in the 2012 elections.

There is a considerable sense of déjà vu here, since Lakoba already once himself stepped down from the same position over the same issue — in 2008, during the presidency of Sergei Bagapsh. He was reappointed in 2011 after Bagapsh had passed away and was succeeded by Alexander Ankvab (previously Vice President). This time, the falling out has been much more acrimonious. After his dismissal, Lakoba gave a press conference accompanied by opposition MP Aslan Kobakhia, in which he explained his position and leveled accusation at the current government and President Ankvab in particular. This in turn prompted a public response by Prime Minister Leonid Lakerbaia, a long term ally of Ankvab.

During the press conference, Lakoba stressed that he had no personal disagreement with President Ankvab. He also denied that his confrontational stance was inspired by any presidential ambitions of his own, citing his old age and hinting at his lack of proficiency in Abkhaz, which makes him ineligible. Lakerbaia for his part dwelt for some time on his long cooperation with Lakoba, both in opposition and in government.

The discord boils down to three points. Firstly Lakoba and Lakerbaia disagreed over what was and what was not said during Security Council Meetings. These claims are difficult to evaluate and are ultimately not very significant — whether the other Security Council Members agreed with Lakoba’s position, whether the President unlawfully invited non-members to attend meetings and whether the President failed to convene the Security Council when Russian diplomat Dmitri Vishernev and his wife were murdered, or whether it would have been Lakoba’s responsibility to take the initiative.

Secondly, Lakoba agrees with the opposition that the unlawfully issued passports to Georgians constitute a big problem and that not enough is being done to rectify it and to punish the officials responsible, even going so far as to warn that unless reversed, the current policy will result in the annexation of Abkhazia by Georgia. Lakerbaia for his part repeatedly voiced the official government position that individual cases of abuse must be dealt with.

But the most fundamental disagreement is over the position of Georgians in Abkhazia’s society. Lakoba argued that some Abkhazian passports have been obtained by Georgians not even resident in Abkhazia and by those who fought against Abkhazia in the past, while other Georgians who attended the University of Sukhum and who joined the Abkhazian army have gone without. And moreover, that the government has failed to introduce a system of resident permits for those Georgians that do not qualify for citizenship. Lakerbaia concentrated on this latter point, claiming that Lakoba had during the Security Council meeting of 30 April presented resident permits as a general solution for all Georgians, and had even suggested that those unwilling to submit to Abkhazian institutions should leave Abkhazia. In Lakerbaia’s words, on that day “his friendship with Lakoba ended”.

Lakoba is right to point out that Abkhazia should have a system of resident permits for non-citizens, and the Baltic countries have already demonstrated the practice of issuing resident permits to a large part of society. However, the Baltic approach is perhaps not to be emulated, and invalidating passports on a large scale would be unjust in itself and prove absolutely detrimental for Abkhazia’s prospects to integrate its Georgian residents. Most importantly, Lakerbaia convinces when he makes the plea that Abkhazia should embrace its Georgian residents, for this is not a populist position. By firing Lakoba, the Abkhazian government has — at least for the moment — chosen not to give in to nationalist pressure and to stay a moderate course.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Georgia, Human Rights, , ,

Why is the call to boycott the Sochi Olympics led by TI Georgia and ISFED?

Transparency International Georgia (TI Georgia) and the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED) are spearheading a petition that calls on the Georgian government to boycott the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games. This not on account of the corruption and rights violations during their preparation, but because TI Georgia and ISFED consider that the Russian government is breaking the cease fire agreement that ended the August 2008 war. (A particular source of ire is the fact that one of the Russian pilots of that war who has received the title of National Hero has been chosen to carry the Olympic torch. While he is only one among thousands to be bestowed that honour, his run was prominently shown on Russian state TV.)

Regardless of whether one agrees with the cause, neither should be involved, let alone organise this campaign. Organisations like TI Georgia and ISFED hold the moral high ground because they focus on single ideals (fair elections, no more corruption) that are above debate, so that even governments generally have to pay lip service to them. By branching out into political issues, these organisations become themselves politicised. Instead, they should try to avoid giving the government any sticks to beat them with.

In this particular case, TI Georgia and ISFED also risk distracting from the Georgian Presidential election due in less than two weeks, which deserves all their attention.

Filed under: Elections, Georgia, Human Rights, Russia, , ,

Photography: Georgian cemetary on Texel

During the final days of World War II, a few hundred Georgian soldiers, who had been coerced to fight with the German army after having been taken prisoner, rose up on the Dutch island of Texel. After initial success, however, the uprising was suppressed with the aid of German reinforcements from Den Helder on the mainland. Around 600 Georgians, 100 Dutch civilians and 800 Germans (of which 450 in the initial uprising) were killed, many of whom in mass executions, and the German troops weren’t defeated until 20 May 1945, much later than in the rest of Europe.

After the war, a special cemetary was created in the center of the island for the Georgian soldiers, named after their commander, Shalva Loladze. Throughout the years, it has been visited repeatedly by Georgian delegations, notably in 2005 by Mikhail Saakashvili, his wife Sandra Roelofs (who is Dutch) and Patriarch Ilia II.

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Filed under: Georgia, Netherlands, Photography

For twenty years now the West has shirked its responsibility in Abkhazia

I have written a commentary for AbkhazWorld.com on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the end of the 1992–1993 war between Georgia and Abkhazia.

It can be read here.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Chechnya, European Union, Georgia, Human Rights, Kosovo, United States of America, , , ,

Georgia and Vanuatu establish diplomatic relations

On 12 July, Georgia’s Foreign Ministry announced that diplomatic relations had been established with Vanuatu. The news comes as no surprise as the intention to do so was already expressed by Vanuatu’s former Minister for Foreign Affairs Alfred Carlot in March, and by Vanuatu’s new government in April. Furthermore, with respect to Vanuatu’s recognition of Abkhazia, the establishment of diplomatic relations with Georgia is in itself much less relevant than Vanuatu’s general political support for Georgia as of late.

What is interesting is that the agreement signed in New York explicitly affirms that Vanuatu recognises Georgia’s territory as comprising Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But this does not yet amount to a formal suspension of Vanuatu’s recognition of Abkhazia. The agreement was signed by ni-Vanuatu Ambassador to the U.N. Donald Kalpokas, who has a history of going against his government on the issue, triggering an attempt by Alfred Carlot to recall him (it is in fact doubtful whether he is actually still Ambassador to the U.N. at the moment).

And while President Saakashvili claimed in May that Prime Minister Moana Carcasses Kalosil of Vanuatu had confirmed to him having withdrawn recognition, a video of the meeting does not back this up, and ni-Vanuatu sources only affirm that Vanuatu has decided not to maintain diplomatic relations with Abkhazia, a subtle difference. (From the perspective of international law, it would be quite irresponsible of Vanuatu to withdraw recognition without this being merited by changed circumstances on the ground.)

Nevertheless, this is clearly a PR-victory for Georgia. Vanuatu’s change of mind would be unimpressive if Abkhazia had since secured recognition from a series of other countries, but at the moment, it only serves to underline that it has not. (Even though Abkhazia’s task to overcome Georgian and U.S. lobbying and expectations of monetary reward — justified or not — is a truly formidable one.)

Ni-Vanuatu politicians don’t come off looking very well from this. Radio New Zealand International quoted former Vanuatu Foreign Minister Jo Natuman as speculating that Alfred Carlot started pursuing friendly relations with Georgia after failing to secure money from Russia for recognising Abkhazia. This receives some confirmation by a recent statement by Australia Ministry for Foreign Affairs official Lachlan Strahan, who admitted that Russia hadn’t actually paid money to pacific states for recognising Abkhazia. And there were reports — evidently believed by former Prime Minister Sato Kilman — that one party had asked Georgia for money in the run-up to the 2012 elections.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Georgia, The Great Recognition Game, Vanuatu, , , ,

Book review: Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus by Georgi M. Derluguian

bourdieu's secret admirer in the caucasus - coverBourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus — A World-System Biography

Georgi M. Derluguian

The University of Chicago Press, Chicago
July 2005
416 pages
ISBN: 978-0-226-14282-1

A description of Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus must begin with an explanation of its somewhat unpractical, yet intriguing title. The admirer in question is Yuri Shanibov, or as he was known in his youth and again briefly during post-communist transition, Musa Shanib. Derluguian describes how when he first meets Shanibov during a banquet in 1997, he by accident discovers — upon uttering the phrase cultural field — that Shanibov is not just a Kabardian nationalist leader and a Professor of Sociology, but also a profound admirer of the great French sociologist Bourdieu.

As the subtitle indicates, the book gives the life story of Shanibov, but only as part of a larger sociological analysis of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The two main questions that Derluguian aims to answer are Why was the Soviet project abandoned? (or equivalently, Why in 1988–1991, why not earlier (around 1968) or later?) and Why did the end of the Soviet project lead to such different outcomes in different places?

Derluguian’s answers to these questions can be summarised as follows. de-Stalinisation under Nikita Khrushchev was embraced by nomenklatura members because it meant they no longer had to fear for their personal security, indeed, their life. But when Khrushchev started to fight corruption too forcefully, aided by junior nomenklatura members like Shanibov looking for opportunities to fill senior positions, now that the cadres were no longer periodically being purged, the upper nomenklatura stepped in and removed him from power, replacing him with one of their own, Leonid Brezhnev. Derluguian surmises that if not for this coup, the room for experimentation under Khrushchev would have led to an analogue of the Prague spring, although he admits he is sceptical whether the resulting revolution would have succeeded.

With the help of the increased revenue of petrodollars following the 1970s oil crises, corruption became institutionalised under Brezhnev and dissatisfaction was bought off with subsidised consumer goods. Derluguian argues that contrary to the pervasive image of the Soviet Union as an all-powerful totalitarian state, this essentially made the nomenklatura unaccountable, and local party heads all but irreplaceable, deriving their power from local patronage networks. Even in cases when party bosses were replaced, their successors would prove just as corrupt. The low quality of consumer goods was another effect of Brezhnev-era accommodation. Workers could not in general achieve better wages and working conditions through strikes, but they would also not be fired, and so resorted to putting in less effort. In general, Derluguian makes the point that the Soviet Union did not lack the economic capacity to keep up with the capitalist west, but that the allocation of resources was woefully inadequate.

When structural problems became so great that the top of the communist party under Mikhail Gorbachev did undertake serious systemic reform, it could not rely on the nomenklatura, but had to engender a revolution from below. This revolution then quickly derailed, in large part because the freedom of Glasnost was quickly employed to voice nationalist concerns. Many of these concerns hailed back to the time when a particular territory was incorporated into the Soviet Union, but the strongly territorial structural make-up of the Soviet Union served as an essential catalyst in their coming to the fore. Besides being in economic competition, the different national territories also each possessed their own elites, for while the Soviet Union managed in many ways to transcend the national, intellectuals in the humanities in particular were constrained to their territory by the nature of their education, and the patronage systems that governed economic life further penalised mobility into territories where a person had no contacts. Some nationalist causes, like those of the Armenians and Azeris, were incompatible and clashed, reinforcing each other in the process. These were particularly difficult for the Soviet leadership to appease, since any compromise decision would keep both sides unhappy. The rising tide of nationalism could in principle have been dealt with through a combination of forceful suppression and economic hand-outs, but these were exactly the tools that the reformist leadership intended to no longer employ. Instead, the crisis was deepened by the shortages caused by the economic reform of perestroika.

In order to explain the different outcomes of nationalist revolutions in Chechnya, Georgia and Azerbaijan (chaos) and the Baltic States (liberal democracy), Derluguian employs the concept of the social class. Broadly speaking, Soviet society consisted of three classes relevant for his analysis. The nomenklatura formed the Soviet bureaucracy, the ‘ruling class’. The proletariat consisted of everyone else whose primary income was the wage they received from the Soviet State. One of the great achievements of the Soviet project was to proletarianise almost all of society, ranging from professors to farmers. Nevertheless, there were still those who came by or at least supplemented their income through other means, the sub-proletariat. This class was relatively large in the sub-tropical Caucasus, where favourable agricultural conditions allowed for independent income both directly through family plots and indirectly, through a blossoming black market. Derluguian also points out that under Brezhnev, perhaps one in six Soviet males spent time in prison, a figure even higher in the Caucasus, and that prison thus became the central socialising institution for the sub-proletariat. In the industrialised Baltic states, the revolution proceeded orderly because it was supported by a highly educated and liberal proletariat, and because the nomenklatura was relatively competent, accepting regime change without too much resistance, while in the agricultural Caucasus, the proletariat was weak, the nomenklatura much more corrupt and the sub-proletariat strong, inducing nationalist leaders to mobilise the latter.

Nationalist revolutions did not occur everywhere. In some places, like Central Asia, intellectuals were so weak that the nomenklatura could easily re-assert itself, symbolically adopting a few outward attributes of nationalism (although, in Tajikistan, only after a lengthy civil war). In many autonomous republics, like Kabarda, nationalist groups did mobilise, but not rapidly enough. By the time that they would have been able to take power, the Russian government had already regained enough strength to allow the local nomenklatura to hold on to power. Moreover, when the pressure reached its highest point, Georgia invaded Abkhazia, provoking great sympathy for the latter among North Caucasian nationalists. (Derluguian points out that the war in Abkhazia was for North Caucasian nationalists what the Spanish civil war was for the western left or the war in Afghanistan for Islamists.) The leaders of the North Caucasian republics soon realised that it was in their own best interest not to prevent young men eager to take up arms from crossing the border with Abkhazia.

In Chechnya, however, the nationalist opposition did mobilise quickly enough to overthrow the communist elite. The driving force behind this mobilisation was the national trauma of Stalinist deportation, but it was able to proceed so fast also because the Chechen elite was not entrenched in and thus had no stake in existing bureaucratic structures, since after return from exile, Chechens had systematically been excluded from the ranks of nomenklatura.

What about the Ingush, who shared the trauma of deportation with the Chechens, but opted to remain with Russia, splitting the Checheno-Ingush republic? Appearances are deceiving, because this act of separation was in fact a nationalist revolution of sorts, of more radical local leaders against the conservative Ingush elite in Grozny, motivated by the fear of becoming a minority in independent Checheno-Ingushetia, and by the desire to regain the Prigorodny District, including half of Vladikavkaz, a territory that had been Ingush before the deportation but which remained with North-Ossetia even after the Ingush return from exile. The struggle to achieve this escalated into a short but bloody war, which the Ingush lost, burying with it the nationalist spirit.

The Ingush pattern of counter-mobilisation in reaction to the Chechen nationalist revolution was replicated elsewhere. In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia — presumably more confident about its own independence than Chechnya — reacted with war, which it lost. In Kabardino-Balkaria, where the Balkar minority lost its representatives in the first competitive elections, no war broke out, because the Kabardian revolution itself failed, and because the Kabardian nomenklatura, which thus stayed in power, reached a power-sharing agreement with the Balkars, achieving in effect a return to the Soviet status quo.

Finally, Derluguian leaves some room for the influence of individual leaders. One additional reason why the nationalist opposition mobilised quicker in Chechnya than in Kabarda was probably that Jokhar Dudayev was simply more radical than the Kabardian national leaders. In Adjara, Derluguian goes so far as to credit Aslan Abashidze with a decisive role in shaping the outcome of the post-Communist transition. At first glance it might seem clear that the separate status Adjara was awarded in the Soviet Union should not impact on Adjarans’ self-identification as Georgians, albeit Muslim Georgians. But Derluguian points out that this outcome was in fact not so obvious, and that radical Georgian nationalists, emphasising the Christian identity of Georgia and taking over control of the economy, were quickly alienating large parts of Adjara, pushing it on the way of Bosnia. Abashidze managed to subdue these nationalists and appease the local elite, while not resisting Adjara’s entry into the new Georgian state, at least formally.

Derluguian’s account convincingly brings together structural conditions and historically accidental developments. Inevitably, however, some questions remain unanswered. For instance, why did the Ingush and Chechens not share a common national project, like the Georgians and Mingrelians, and even the Circassians, spread out over several Soviet republics? Was there Karachay independist mobilisation like in Chechnya, which one might expect given that the Karachay shared with the Chechens the trauma of deportation, and the privilege of constituting the largest non-Russian group in their republic (unlike the Ingush and Balkars)? There is also something unsatisfactory about the binary division between the outcomes in the Baltic states on the one hand and in Chechnya, Georgia and Azerbaijan on the other. What about Armenia, Abkhazia, Belarus and the Ukraine? They seem to exemplify a middle way, where nationalists and members of the nomenklatura did come to an arrangement, but which ended up short of liberal democracy. Perhaps the answer lies in the nature and relative strength of the local nomenklatura.

Bourdieu’s secret admirer in the Caucasus successfully supplements a ‘journalistic’ account of conflict with a proper scientific apparatus. But Derluguian also explicitly positions the book as a contribution to the field of sociology. The theoretical discussion, concentrated in Chapter 2, is rather dense for the layperson, and regardless of its merits, feels a bit overblown, considering that the most important outcomes for the case at hand seem to be the insight that an analysis should combine long-term structural developments with short-term historical accidents, the concept of social capital and the realisation that the Soviet Union had a sub-proletariat that played a crucial role during the collapse of communism. The sociological charts at the back of the book are somewhat superfluous, as they require a proper understanding of the text to be themselves understood and don’t add much new information. At best, they may help some readers recall the essence of Derluguian’s arguments.

The book contains a few minor details that are somewhat problematic. When the author mentions that before or during the Abkhazian war a number of mosques had been built by volunteers from the Middle East that were subsequently abandoned and even in some cases blown up, some more specification or references would have been welcome. In another instance, Derluguian describes how Aslan Abashidze shot the nationalist leader of Adjara, while he was at the time his deputy, but accounts elsewhere suggest that the person shot — Nodar Imnadze — was in fact Abashidze’s Deputy, Abashidze himself having been appointed leader of Adjara by Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Nonetheless, the overall judgement must be that the reader profits tremendously from Derluguian’s personal experience in the region, and the many notes and references invite follow-up reading.

Bourdieu’s secret admirer in the Caucasus is also beautifully published — although only the paperback edition features the cover image of Shanibov on a green background advertised online — elegantly written and virtually free from typographical mistakes. Most importantly, while it is a difficult book, it is well worth the effort, since it succeeds to a very large extent in exposing the logic behind not just the descend into chaos in the early 1990s Caucasus, but the collapse of the Soviet Union in general.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Adjara, Balkaria, Book reviews, Chechnya, Georgia, Ingushetia, Kabarda, Russia, Wider Region, , , ,

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.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Georgia, ,

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