Text by Paul Rimple; Photos by Sophia Mizante 10/08/08

Abkhazia has hailed Russian recognition of its independence from Georgia as the start of a new era, but for Georgians in the southern Abkhaz region of Gali the campaign to strengthen Abkhazia’s statehood poses a dilemma: whether or not to take Abkhaz citizenship.

Many Georgians in Gali, a predominantly ethnic Georgian (Mingrelian) area, fear that they may be forced to take Abkhaz passports, which would require them to forfeit their Georgian citizenship, an act few are willing to make.

"I saw the passport application and you are asked to sign a line where you give up your Georgian citizenship," claimed a man, who spoke on condition of anonymity. His friend, a woman who gave her name as Nana, stated that she would take her children and leave Gali rather than give up her Georgian citizenship, a sentiment echoed by several people interviewed by EurasiaNet.

Most of the approximately 40,000 Georgians in Gali are registered as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Georgia, which entitles them to a small monthly allowance. If they forfeit their citizenship to take an Abkhaz passport, they would lose that support. For many people in this impoverished region, the payouts are their only source of income.

Echoing statements by Abkhazia’s central government, Ruslan Kishmaria, Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh’s point man in Gali, stressed that no plans exist to force anybody to accept Abkhaz passports. But, Kishmaria added, it will be necessary for Gali residents to possess an Abkhaz passport in order to vote in regional and local elections.

"For the time being, it is impossible to allow Georgians dual citizenship purely for the fact that we’re still at a state of war with Georgia," he said. There is also a matter of precedent. Under a recent treaty signed with Moscow, Abkhaz citizens can also hold Russian passports. The vast majority of Abkhaz residents are dual citizens.

Georgian Interior Ministry spokesperson Shota Utiashvili has stated that anyone who takes Abkhaz citizenship will lose their right to be a Georgian citizen.

Not all Gali residents are concerned with the passport situation. Zura B., an unemployed man who asked not to be identified, said he would probably take an Abkhaz passport since he cannot visit Moscow with his Georgian passport. "They won’t take away my Georgian passport and I won’t swear to anything. There are ways to get around such things," Zura said.

Although Abkhazia closed its border with the Georgian region of Samegrelo in June, Gali residents still cross the Inguri bridge to the Samegrelian capital of Zugdidi to visit family and to shop. De facto Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba stated there are no intentions to restrict freedom of movement.

But Gali envoy Kishmaria said that without an Abkhaz passport, travel for these residents will become more difficult. The Abkhaz government will issue temporary residency permits, but added that non-citizen residents will require special permission from the local Federal Security Service to cross the border into Samegrelo. "We’ll have a proper border like a proper country," stated Kishmaria. In a separate interview, Shamba insisted that new procedures were needed to prevent acts of terrorism.

Most locals describe the situation in Gali as unchanged since before Georgia’s August 8-12 conflict with Russia, and relatively "peaceful" and "calm."

Officials assert that security, long an issue for the Abkhaz, has now been guaranteed by Russia. Russian peacekeepers continue to occupy Gali checkpoints, as they have done since 1994. The only difference since after the war is that Russian troops appear to be reinforcing their bases, as well as the border.

On a recent trip to Gali, scores of armored personnel carriers could be seen at one Russian installation en route to the border with Samegrelo; troop trucks and gasoline tankers are more commonplace than earlier this summer, although peacekeepers still maintain a relatively discreet presence in the town of Gali.

Kishmaria said the number of peacekeepers in Gali -- 900 -- remains unchanged from before the August conflict between Russia and Georgia. An additional 80 sappers have also arrived, he said, but he could not specify their activities.

Locals have mixed feelings about Russian troops. While they contribute considerably to Gali’s fledgling economy, many Georgians in the region seem to draw greater confidence from the presence of the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG). The mission’s mandate expires on October 15, a fact that worries some residents about both safety and employment prospects.

In a September 30 interview with reporters, Abkhaz Deputy Defense Minister Maj. Gen. Gari Kupalba affirmed that the UNOMIG mandate would continue "technically" for another six months, but that the mission’s purpose in Abkhazia would be reviewed during this period.

Editor's Note: Paul Rimple is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. Sophia Mizante is a photographer also based in Tbilisi. EurasiaNet’s Caucasus news editor, Elizabeth Owen, added reporting to this story.
EurasiaNet Civil Society - Abkhazia: Ethnic Georgian Region Faces Citizenship Quandary
I don't understand why they cannot be bold like the Serbs in Kosovo.

If they feel so threatened, they should move to Georgia.

The rather imbecilic (for the want of an appropriate word) adventure of the impetuous Georgian leader has put all in a spin including the West which was so painstaking plodding along to get Georgia into NATO and change the balance of power!