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Georgia/Russia: Naturalization Issue Further Strains Relations

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Uneasy relations between Russia and the southern Caucasus state of Georgia have deteriorated further after Tbilisi accused Moscow of deliberately infringing on its sovereignty by naturalizing an increasing number of residents in its breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Abkhazia admits that a greater number of its nationals are applying for Russian citizenship but cites Moscow's recent decision to toughen naturalization procedures to explain the sudden rise.

Prague, 13 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In a move likely to increase tensions with Russia, Georgia is accusing Moscow of taking steps to accelerate the delivery of Russian passports to residents in its breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Georgia's claims coincide with preparations made in Russia to implement a bill signed by President Vladimir Putin that comes into force on 1 July. The bill sets tougher guidelines for foreigners and ethnic Russians living abroad to acquire citizenship, but also maintains simplified procedures for former Soviet citizens who currently live in CIS countries other than Russia and who have not been granted new citizenship since 1991.

Unlike other applicants, people belonging to this latter category are not required to have a five-year residency period in Russia to be eligible. All they need to do is prove they have a father or a mother who is unable to work and who already holds Russian citizenship, or that they themselves are former Soviet citizens who have remained without citizenship after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

More than a decade after the breakup of the Soviet Union, a large number of people living in the 15 newly independent states still hold Soviet passports. New national identity papers issued after 1991 and meant for domestic use do not allow them to travel abroad.

The problem is particularly acute for people living in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and other internationally unrecognized republics, such as Moldova's breakaway province of Transdniester or Azerbaijan's former ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. After these republics unilaterally declared their independence in the late 1980s and early 1990s, sometimes with the active support of Moscow, a large number of residents applied for and received Russian citizenship -- or Armenian citizenship, in the case of Karabakh residents.

Authorities in Abkhazia say that some 50 percent of the population -- including most government officials -- holds Russian citizenship, although the actual percentage may be higher.

A few days ago, Georgia's Prime News news agency quoted South Ossetia's Special Affairs Minister Boris Chochiev as giving a similar 50 percent figure for Russian citizens in his region. Among them is South Ossetia's leader Eduard Kokoev, who was elected president last December.

Georgian authorities claim the naturalization process has reached an unprecedented scale and accuse Russia of planning to automatically grant citizenship to all residents in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. During his regular Monday radio address to the nation, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze on 10 June accused Moscow of infringing on his country's national sovereignty and of trying to "annex" the two breakaway provinces.

"I have the impression that, among Russia's power structures, there is a veiled and destructive opposition that is gaining momentum and that is using all possible methods to prevent a rapprochement and a collaboration based on equal rights between Georgia and Russia. Such a decision diminishes Russia's role as an objective and impartial mediator in the search for a settlement of the Abkhaz conflict."

Abkhaz authorities effectively seceded from Georgia in 1992 when they asked to be integrated into the Russian Federation, prompting Tbilisi to attempt to retake the province by force. With the active support of the Russian military, Abkhaz forces maintained control over the region and forced Georgia into signing a cease-fire. Both sides remain formally at war, however.

As for South Ossetia, it seceded from Georgia before the demise of the Soviet Union, triggering a three-year war with Tbilisi that also ended with a cease-fire and the region's de facto independence.

Russia is part of a UN-sponsored group of nations seeking a resolution of the Abkhaz conflict and has peacekeepers deployed both in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Nevertheless, it has been accused by Georgia of hampering the search for a peaceful solution. Officials in Tbilisi also complain that both separatist regions are de facto under Russian jurisdiction.

In December 2000, Moscow introduced a visa requirement for Georgian nationals traveling to Russia. The Kremlin justified the measure -- which does not apply to residents in Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- by saying it was taken to prevent Chechen fighters it claims are hiding in northeastern Georgia from entering Russia. Tbilisi says the Russian decision was part of a much wider campaign to force pro-Western Shevardnadze to adopt a more compliant policy toward Moscow.

Sergei Shamba is the foreign minister of the Abkhaz separatist government. In a telephone interview from Moscow, he denied Shevardnadze's charges of infringement on Georgian sovereignty. He told our correspondent that more and more Abkhaz residents are applying for naturalization for fear of being denied such a possibility when the new citizenship bill comes into force in three weeks.

"Starting from 1 July, there will be a new law that will make citizenship procedures more difficult. This is why people are trying to get Russian citizenship as quickly as possible. Our legislation allows us to have dual citizenship. And many of our fellow citizens -- in fact, almost all of them -- are trying to get another citizenship in order to travel freely. A lot of Abkhaz citizens also hold Turkish citizenship. A very large number of those Georgians who live [in Abkhazia] have Georgian citizenship. A number of [ethnic] Armenians hold Armenian citizenship. [But] the overwhelming majority of people are looking for Russian citizenship."

Prewar surveys put Abkhazia's population at around 560,000, with an overwhelming majority of ethnic Georgians. Although an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 of Georgians have returned to the region since the end of military operations, Abkhazia is now mostly populated by ethnic Abkhaz. Ethnic Armenians accounted for 15 percent of the population before the war. It is unclear how many of them remain in the area.

Shamba's claims that concerns about tougher naturalization rules explain why Abkhaz residents have decided to apply en masse for Russian citizenship are not sustained by reports from other separatist regions -- notably Transdniester, where no substantial increase has been noticed.

In comments unlikely to ease Georgia's concerns, Abkhazia's Prime Minister Anri Djergenia said on 10 June that all local residents will have dual citizenship in 2003 when the breakaway republic abolishes Soviet passports.

Djergenia also provided another clue to explain why a growing number of Abkhaz citizens are applying for naturalization. Russia's Interfax news agency quoted him as saying, "when Russian citizens living in Abkhazia outnumber 50,000, [Moscow] will be obliged to intervene in case of an emergency situation."

Although Djergenia did not elaborate, he was likely referring to widespread Abkhaz concerns that Georgia might consider taking advantage of the U.S. assistance offered to its armed forces to retake the region by force -- a charge Tbilisi has denied. Dozens of American military advisers are currently in Georgia to train troops as part of a $64 million antiterrorism program. Many in Abkhazia blame Moscow for not opposing the U.S. military deployment.

So far, Russia has vaguely and contradictorily responded to Shevardnadze's accusations regarding the naturalization issue.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksander Yakovenko said on 11 June that the granting of citizenship to Abkhaz residents does not contradict Russian laws. He also said Moscow cannot ignore naturalization applications made by former Soviet citizens, lest it be accused of infringing on "internationally recognized human rights norms."

Yet, addressing reporters in Tbilisi that same day, the visiting chairman of the CIS Affairs Committee of the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, gave a different explanation. Boris Pastukhov suggested corrupt Russian consular officers might be blamed for the increasing number of passports delivered to Abkhaz and South Ossetian citizens and pledged measures will be taken to stem the process. "If these practices have renewed with the complicity of certain persons, we will certainly put an end to them."

Pastukhov had come to Georgia to revive talks over a future bilateral treaty meant to replace a friendship accord signed in 1994, which Russia never ratified.

Despite the mutual satisfaction expressed at the end of the talks, the Tbilisi-based "Civil Georgia" electronic newspaper noted on 12 June that renewed tensions over Abkhazia had cast a shadow on the Russian envoy's visit.

In veiled threats to Moscow, Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagarishvili said on 11 June that a failure to settle the passport issue quickly could negatively affect already thorny bilateral relations. "I do hope that our Russian colleagues will get right to the bottom of these, say, events, and that an end will be put to such illegal actions. Otherwise, a lot will be called into question."

Menagarishvili did not elaborate, but further tensions between the two countries could hinder talks over the fate of the 1,800-strong Russian peacekeeping force deployed in Abkhazia. The mandate of this force expires on 30 June and cannot be extended if either of the two sides objects.

The naturalization dispute could also complicate the Abkhaz settlement process. The UN Security Council is expected to discuss the issue on 31 July when it meets to review a peace plan prepared by Dieter Boden, the UN special envoy to the region.

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