Abkhazia: Furore Over Gal Georgians' Status

Opposition politicians angry at plans to offer full rights to members of marginalised community.

Abkhazia: Furore Over Gal Georgians' Status

Opposition politicians angry at plans to offer full rights to members of marginalised community.

Friday, 14 August, 2009

Abkhazia last week scrapped proposals to give citizenship to resident ethnic Georgians, following claims from opposition politicians the legal change would undermine Abkhazian security.



But the issue, which would have involved granting full rights to Georgians living in Abkhazia’s eastern Gal region, is not resolved and could well flare up in presidential elections scheduled for December.



Most of Abkhazia’s 250,000 Georgians fled during and after the 1992-3 conflict in which Tbilisi lost control of the republic, but around 60,000 still live around the town of Gal, and their lack of citizenship has marginalised them, making it difficult for them to gain benefits or own property.



On July 31, parliament adopted amendments allowing “people, who returned to the Gal region before 2005 to the places of their previous permanent residency” to gain an Abkhaz passport, provided they had not “with anti-constitutional methods fought against the sovereignty of the Republic of Abkhazia”.



But that outraged opposition groups such as the Forum of National Unity, which supports Raul Khadzhimba, who was vice-president until May but now plans to run against President Sergei Bagapsh in the December polls.



“At this moment, there are as many citizens of Abkhazia of Georgian ethnicity as there are of Abkhaz ethnicity. The law has reduced those who fought for the independence of Abkhazia to the same level as those who for many years assisted Georgian colonial interests. The vast majority of residents of the Gal region have Georgian citizenship, and they are being awarded Abkhazian citizenship without having to reject their Georgian citizenship,” the forum said in a statement, also signed by the Aruaa veterans’ union and the Akhatsa group.



And they saw a political reason why the amendment was being passed now in Abkhazia, which is only recognised as an independent state by Russia and Nicaragua.



“The current authorities, not counting on the support of the majority of citizens of Abkhazia, are planning on guaranteeing their victory from people of Georgian ethnicity,” said the statement.



Bagapsh’s officials attempted to calm the furore. His representative in parliament, Dmitry Shamba, explained that Georgians would have to reject their Georgian citizenship before receiving an Abkhazian passport.



“Dual citizenship is possible only with Russia. If a Gal resident has a Georgian passport, he cannot receive an Abkhazian passport,” Shamba told reporters on August 5.



Irina Agrba, the deputy speaker of parliament, attempted to explain why the amendments had been planned, saying the current status quo was unsustainable.



“Society has discussed the problems of the Gal region many times, and a policy needs to be followed there to integrate the population into Abkhazian society. We cannot isolate the Gal region, and make it into a reservation,” she said.



But the announcements failed to appease the protesters outside parliament, who included Khadzhimba and deputies who opposed the motion. The next day an extraordinary session of parliament heard that Bagapsh had sent the amendments back for further discussion. Deputies agreed to cancel the proposals, and set up a working group for further discussions.



“It is hard to find a balance, so the Abkhaz nation can feel itself secure, while the world community also looked on us as a civilised state. It is sad that the deputies could not come to some kind of consensus. They should not have hurried,” said Natella Akaba, the secretary of the president’s civil chamber, which groups various non-governmental organisations.



Around 2,000 people in the Gal region have managed to gain Abkhazian passports in the last few years, having officially revoked their Georgian citizenship. One of these, Lasha, an ethnic Georgian in the town of Gal, said he had to wait in line for three hours just to hand over the papers, but did it anyway.



His neighbours, however, were not following him, even though the lack of Abkhazian citizenship meant they could not formalise their property ownership.



“At issue is the 200-300 lari (120-180 US dollars) that they receive as benefits in Georgia, since the Abkhazian pension is miserly,” he said.



Beslan Barateliya, a political expert in Sukhum, said the government had not worked out any coherent policy towards the Gal region and needed to spend more time thinking about it.



“On one side, the integration of the Gal region into the all-Abkhazian space must not create worries in Abkhazian society about being a minority in their own land. On the other side, the Gal residents themselves, wanting to stay and live in Abkhazia, must understand and accept that they live in independent Abkhazia, which is not and will not be a part of Georgia,” he said.



“Therefore residents of the Gal region must make their choice.”



Anaid Gogorian is an IWPR contributor.

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