Citizenship Clampdown in Abkhazia Leaves Georgians Fearful
Ethnic Georgians remaining in the occupied Abkhazia claim not to have felt so intimidated for a long time, probably since 1998 when the separatists started another ethnic cleansing campaign cloaked as a fight against Georgian guerillas. After the ‘Tangerine’ revolution and the coming of Raul Khajimba to power, the danger of ethnic cleansing resurfaced in the occupied Gali as Khajimba stated that he will oust every Georgian who has a valid Georgian passport.
Today, 20 per cent of the population in the occupied Abkhazia is ethnically Georgian, roughly 46,000 in total. Of these, 30,000 live in the Gali and Tkvarcheli regions, 25,000 of whom have obtained ‘Abkhazian citizenship’. However, after the apparent new wave of ‘Georgianophobia’ it is quite possible that many will be stripped of that ‘citizenship’. According to the New Post news agency, on the territory of the occupied Abkhazia, passports were taken from Georgians receiving assistance at the Abkhazbank. They were told that within a one-week period, they would receive Form 100, which is a document necessary to obtain a local passport. Abkhazbank is a branch of a Russian bank and is the de-facto state bank of Abkhazia.
Earlier, in order to reveal flaws in the passport-granting process, a special survey was conducted among the residents of the Gali district, according to which 96 per cent of Georgians said that they are citizens of Georgia. The initiator of the survey was Temur Nadaraia, head of the so-called administration of the Gali district. According to him, 18,071 persons living in 18 villages of the Gali district were surveyed and it was revealed that 17,372 of those were citizens of Georgia and 7,127 held Abkhazian passports.
The separatist government regarded this 96 per cent as a heavy burden. This is why talks about the passport-granting process in the de-facto parliament caused much furore. Last year, the de-facto government of Sokhumi abolished 26,000 Abkhazian passports issued in the Gali district because passport-holders had Georgian citizenship and Abkhazian-Georgian dual citizenship is not allowed in the de facto republic of Abkhazia. Consequently, in the so-called snap presidential elections in August only 280 people from the Gali district had the right to vote.
Within state structures, people were also asked to hand in telephones connected to Georgian mobile operator networks. They were told that special frequency suppressor towers would be placed on the territory of the Gali district and would block frequencies of Georgian operators. They were also told that those persons who did not obey this demand, would have to pay a fine of approximately 200 Lari. It is no secret to anyone that people frequently travel from Gali to Zugdidi. Many holders of dual citizenship live in Tbilisi but still try to maintain their Samurzakano roots, particularly those whose houses were not burned down in 1993.
What will happen to these people? Can Russia use this leverage against Georgia as a punishment for its European and NATO aspirations? It could mean as many as 40,000-50,000 new IDPs if the situation is handled strictly.
Despite the passport blitzkrieg, it remains unclear how the Abkhazians themselves would benefit if the Georgian population left Gali. The Gali district is supplying the whole of Abkhazia, as 70 percent of the Abkhazian economy relies on village products grown in Gali. Economically, Gali is the strongest part of the occupied territory, as was the case during Soviet times.
If Gali is emptied and unofficial trade stops, the ‘Abkhazian economy’ will have serious problems. At a minimum, everything will become expensive, perhaps equivalent to that of nearby Sochi. This will decrease the flow of tourists, the only resource that keeps the Abkhazian state alive.
It is hard to imagine that the Kremlin will support this whim of Khajimba, especially against further opposition from the West. With the conflict still bubbling in Ukrainian events, such a step by another Russian-backed territory would be unpalatable. However, will the Georgian government have enough professionalism, sense and diplomacy to avoid a dark chapter of history being repeated?