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Abkhaz Rush For Russian Passports

Tbilisi’s relations with Moscow worsen as hundreds of thousands of Abkhazians take up Russian citizenship.
By Inal Khashig

Abkhazians have infuriated Georgia by rushing to acquire Russian passports this month before Moscow tightens regulations on citizenship.

Since June 1, the public organisation, the Congress of Russian Communities of Abkhazia, has been collecting Abkhazians’ Soviet-era travel documents. It has sent them to consular department specially set up by Moscow foreign ministry officials in the city of Sochi, on the Black Sea coast just north of breakaway region. When they have been checked, they are returned with a new page inserted certifying Russian citizenship.

By June 25, an estimated 150,000 people in Abkhazia had acquired the new passports, joining 50,000 who already possess Russian citizenship. Seventy per cent of the population are now citizens of the federation.

This mass acquisition of Russian passports is bound to have a big but as yet unclear impact on the future of a region that the international community - despite functioning independently of Tbilisi for nine years - still regards as an integral part of Georgia.

Abkhazia already uses Russian roubles as its main currency and is almost totally reliant on Moscow for its economic survival. Now wholesale conversion to Russian citizenship, apparently with Moscow’s full consent, will make Sukhum even more de facto a part of its northern neighbour.

The operation has caused outrage in Tbilisi, worsening its already shaky relations with Russia. The Georgian foreign ministry issued a statement, insisting that Abkhazians were citizens of Georgia and calling the passport allocation an “unprecedented illegal campaign”.

President Eduard Shevardnadze said he would be asking his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, for an explanation. The speaker of parliament, Nino Burjanadze, said she would raise the matter at the forthcoming OSCE parliamentary assembly.

Other parliamentarians said that the only proper response to what they termed Russia’s “annexation” of its territory was to withdraw from all agreements Tbilisi had signed over Abkhazia and quit the Commonwealth of Independent States.

The window for Abkhazians closes on July 1, when a new citizenship law comes into force, considerably toughening the requirements for acquiring Russian nationality.

The process has gripped the breakaway region for the entire month of June, paralysing the local economy, which had already slowed down considerably due to the screening of World Cup matches in working hours.

The Sukhum authorities, although officially not involved in the registration process, have been openly encouraging it.

“Residents receiving the citizenship of the Russian Federation will help create closer relations (with) Russia,” said Abkhazia’s prime minister Anri Djergenia, who advocates that his republic should have what he calls “associate status” within Russia.

Government officials say privately that the passport acquisition was agreed with President Putin’s administration during Djergenia’s visit to Moscow in May. But this has not been confirmed officially.

Djergenia himself does not disguise the fact that he has been a Russian citizen himself for several years. “I have made my choice,” he said. “The more Russian citizens live in Abkhazia, the greater the guarantee that Georgia will not begin a new war. Every great power is duty bound to defend its citizens, wherever they live.”

In order to cope with the demand, government offices have spent the entire month working to a special regime from early morning to midnight without a break. Huge queues have formed. Villagers have abandoned work in the fields to go to the towns and have their documents processed.

People give various reasons for applying. Some say they want to receive Russian pension, which is worth around fifty times more than one in Abkhazia. Others want to lose the tag of being a “person without nationality” and be able to travel abroad, as Abkhazian nationality is not recognised by the outside world.

Most people here still carry Soviet-era passports, long after the rest of the former Soviet Union brought in new citizenship documents. But in eighteen month’s time Russia will stop accepting their validity. Requests by the Sukhum authorities for their citizens to be given UN documents have been turned down.

“You get the impression that the bureaucrats of the UN and other international organisations are more worried about the territorial integrity of Georgia than observing the elementary rights of a whole people,” said Tsiza Gumba, a human rights activist. “The international community’s lack of flexibility on this question has created the current situation.”

In this situation, Russia represents salvation for most Abkhazians. Lasha is a veteran of the Georgia-Abkhazia war and the father of four children. Since the end of the fighting, neither her nor his wife Gunda has left the republic, but he wants his children to have the chance to do so. “I don’t want my children to end up locked inside Abkhazia, while other people have the chance to move freely across the whole world - and I see nothing wrong in the fact that Russia will help them,” he said.

“I would rather die of hunger than take a Georgian passport - that would be a betrayal of the memory of my brother, who died in the war.”

The big passport rush has proved an unexpected money-spinner for Abkhazia’s bureaucrats. Some offices, handing out certificates, have already earned more in less than a month than they generally do in a whole year.

Others with entrepreneurial flair have cashed in too. The small number of people in Abkhazia who possess photocopiers have been particularly lucky. Some have placed them in the streets and attracted long queues.

Street hawkers have also been doing a roaring trade. “We have to combine the pleasant and the useful,” explained Lena, a young woman doing a brisk business, selling ice-creams outside the Sukhum office of the Congress of Russian Communities.

Lena gives free legal advice to all comers, regardless of whether they buy her ice creams or not.

The Abkhazian authorities see the mass acquisition of Russian citizenship as the first step towards the republic itself acquiring legitimacy. “People have been recognised, next it’s the turn of the country, that hour will come,” said Djergenia.

Opposition leader Leonid Lakerbaia was less optimistic, saying that he did not know what the wider consequences would be. “But even so, I would not take it on myself to advise someone to take Russian citizenship or not, since present-day Abkhazia is not capable of providing what a Russian passport provides,” he said.

Inal Khashig is BBC Caucasus and Central Asia correspondent in Abkhazia. Margarita Akhvlediani, IWPR’s Georgia editor in Tbilisi, contributed to this report.

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