Sokhumi authorities began issuing residence permits to ethnic Georgians of Abkhazia, following a four-year-long uncertainly over the legal status of residents of Gali District, the region’s predominantly ethnic Georgian-populated area.
According to the local internal affairs ministry, the residence permits are issued for a renewable term of five years and are designed for “foreign citizens or persons without citizenship.” The ministry also reported on April 21, that the residence permit holders living out of Abkhazia for over six months would be stripped of the document.
The document allows its owners to retain Georgian citizenship, to reside in the region and cross the Administrative Boundary Line (ABL) with the rest of Georgia. It will not, however, give full political rights to its holders.
According to Sokhumi-based newspaper Nuzhnaya, the residence permit enables its holder to sell and bequeath property in Abkhazia, but does not permit the property purchase. Sokhumi authorities also plan to start consultations with the Moscow on recognizing the residence permits as travel documents for entry to and exit from the Russian federation.
The document is pointedly intended for the ethnic Georgian residents of Gali district – the only part of Abkhazia with remaining Georgian population that has survived several waves of ethnic-based expulsion. The number of ethnic Georgians eligible for the “residence permits” will be limited, however. According to the region’s internal affairs ministry, applicants for the permits will need to provide documents proving that they have lived in Abkhazia for at least ten years since 1999.
The citizenship passport, the other available document for Abkhazia’s residents, according to the region’s law on citizenship, can only be owned by an ethnic Abkhaz, also a person who is not an ethnic Abkhaz, but who lived in Abkhazia from 1994 to 1999, and who is not a citizen of another state, except the Russian Federation.
When combined, the two provisions effectively exclude almost half of Gali district’s 80-thousand strong pre-war population on top of the remaining 200 000 ethnic Georgians from other parts of Abkhazia, who fled the region as a result of the 1992-1993 armed conflict.
Aslan Kobakhia, the region’s interior minister who oversees the “passportization” process, warned local residents at a public meeting on April 21 that those ethnic Georgian residents who would try to possess Abkhaz citizenship (instead of residence permit) while simultaneously retaining the Georgian citizenship, would “forever lose Abkhazia.”
Authorities in Sokhumi suspended issuing Abkhaz passports to ethnic Georgian residents of the region in 2013, fearing that the process might result into, as some Abkhaz officials put it, “Georgianization of Abkhazia.” Almost 23 000 Gali residents were removed from the voters’ lists in 2014, shortly before the region’s presidential election on August 24.
As a result, only 603 voters were registered in Gali district during the legilslative polls held by Sokhumi authorities on March 12, 2017. The Abkhaz authorities were also unable to conduct local council elections that took place in the rest of Abkhazia in 2016. The outgoing Sokhumi parliament had to issue a special decision, prolonging the term of Gali district council elected in February 2011.
According to 2011 census by the Abkhaz authorities, over 46,000 ethnic Georgians live in Abkhazia, mainly in the Gali district, which makes over 19% of the breakaway region’s population.