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Stuck In The Middle: Abkhazia's Ethnic Georgians Feel The Squeeze

A recent political protest in the heart of Zugdidi
A recent political protest in the heart of Zugdidi
ZUGDIDI, Georgia -- For residents of the Gali district, the southeastern-most tip of Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia, going to school, getting to a hospital, or collecting a pension payment can be a very tricky endeavor.

It involves crossing the administrative boundary that separates Abkhazia from the rest of Georgia, which -- according to Abkhaz authorities -- can only be done "legally" at a few checkpoints.

In order to leave and reenter the separatist territory, Gali's ethnic Georgians need an Abkhaz "passport," but amid fears of the so-called Georgianization of the district, Abkhaz authorities have suspended the practice of issuing them to Gali residents.

As a result, even as the government of Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili tries to tone down the conflict with Abkhaz authorities, tensions are taking a toll each day.

A teacher in Otobaia, a town near the de facto border, tells RFE/RL that Abkhaz and Russian border guards are constantly watching as her pupils cross over from Gali.

"They are always in front of the school, standing there," the teacher says. "They are moving around the river banks and control the shallows. They said they would not touch students from the school, which is the only positive thing. If they need to, children can cross over to the other side."

The people of Gali have long been caught up in the middle between the separatist aspirations of Abkhazia and Tbilisi's drive to thwart those aspirations. Now their awkward position has returned to the fore as Ivanishvili tries to forge policies regarding Abkhazia that differ markedly from the hard line adopted by President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Loyalty To Tbilisi

Abkhazia declared independence after fighting a war with Georgia in 1992-93. It was recognized as independent by Russia and a handful of other countries after Russia's 2008 war with Georgia. Tbilisi and most of the international community regards the region -- and the breakaway region of South Ossetia -- as Georgian territory occupied by Russian forces.

Although the exact population of the Gali district is disputed, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of Gali citizens -- up to 99 percent -- are ethnic Georgians. The 2011 census says there are more than 46,000 ethnic Georgians living in Abkhazia, most of them in Gali and a couple of neighboring districts. There were some 240,000 Georgians in Abkhazia in 1989, most of whom fled during the 1992-93 war.

Unlike other residents of Abkhazia, Gali denizens oppose Abkhaz separatism and maintain close family and political ties with the rest of Georgia.

Crossing the administrative boundary is an essential part of daily life for Gali residents. A recent International Crisis Group (ICG) report cites Abkhaz figures reporting more than 100,000 crossings of the de facto border in just two months of 2012.

In the past, those who took Abkhaz documents, recognized for travel by only the handful of countries that recognize the territory's independence, also kept their Georgian passports -- both for practical reasons and as a demonstration of loyalty to Tbilisi.

But in recent years, authorities in Sukhumi have been urging Gali residents to surrender their Georgian passports. There have been cases of Abkhaz officials tearing up Georgian passports when they encounter them.

On the other hand, the Georgian policy under Saakashvili has been to demonize those who take Abkhaz passports, in many cases threatening to cut off their pensions or other benefits in the rest of Georgia.

'Results Are Obvious'

Shota Malashkhia, a Georgia parliamentarian from Saakashvili's United National Movement and former head of the Temporary Parliamentary Committee on the Restoration of Territorial Integrity, tells RFE/RL that Saakashvili's government urged the issuing of "neutral" travel documents.

"We wanted the word 'neutral' to be used and that people would get these neutral passports," Malashkhia says. "By the way, there was intense demand for both Georgian and neutral passports."

Since Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition came to power in October, Tbilisi has not only sought to engage Sukhumi directly, it has also stopped the practice of discouraging its citizens from taking Abkhaz passports.

But this has served to raise suspicions in Abkhazia. Opposition forces there have been skeptical of offering passports to ethnic Georgians, arguing that they are insufficiently loyal and dilute the political strength of ethnic Abkhaz voters. They refer openly to the "Georgianization" of Abkhazia.

"If before the Georgian government threatened those obtaining Abkhaz passports with the deprivation of certain benefits, now there is a direct order for all those Georgian citizens residing on the territory of Abkhazia to obtain Abkhaz passports," Aslan Kobakhia, a member of the de facto Abkhaz parliament, says. "Results are obvious: 25,000 passports. I have no doubt that more than 99.9 percent of these families are citizens of Georgia."

Last week Abkhaz officials suspended issuing passports to Gali residents, pending an investigation into what the opposition Forum of People's Unity of Abkhazia condemns as a "massive" wave of passport applications.

Stanislav Lakoba, secretary of Abkhazia's National Security Council, also expresses concerns about what the issuing of Abkhaz passports to ethnic Georgians means for Abkhazia.

"Apparently it was not enough that before the end of war and signing the peace treaty, we allowed tens of thousands of refugees back into the Gali region," Lakoba says. "We even managed to show much favor to citizens of another state, Georgia, and gave them a chance to obtain thousands of our passports."

Left In Limbo

The freeze on issuing passports and such rhetorical statements are signs of a shifting relationship, rather than indications of a worsening situation between Sukhumi and Tbilisi, some officials say.

Vakhtang Kolbaia, acting head of the Abkhaz government-in-exile, which is working with the central government to return Abkhazia to Georgia, says "the demographic situation is a painful topic" in Abkhazia.

"Of course, it was shocking for them (the Abkhaz) that so many Georgians acquired Abkhaz citizenship and passports," Kolbaia says. "They are dealing with this cautiously. We should be understanding of their reaction. If this reaction hadn't been there we would have been at a different stage of resolving this conflict."

In the meantime, it remains possible to cross the de facto border despite the tensions. One Gali resident tells RFE/RL that local officials are even acting to help Gali residents during this time of uncertainty.

"The local government, as they call the head of the village administration, will be giving out passes. They say they will cost 50-60 rubles," the resident says. "If that is the case, people will be relieved."

Written in Prague by Robert Coalson based on reporting in Zugdidi by Tea Shonia of RFE/RL's Georgian Service. RFE/RL Echo of the Caucasus correspondent Demis Polandov and RFE/RL Georgian Service intern Luka Kalandarishvili also contributed to this report from Prague

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