Identity and passport policy in the Gali region

In order to distance the Gali district from the rest of Georgia, the de facto government of Abkhazia and Russia's local organizations pursuing soft power policy are actively using the tools of identity policy.

According to the information provided by a source to the Democracy Research Institute, the de facto parliament of Abkhazia once again held a hearing in Sukhumi this week on  possible changes in the ethnic identity of Georgians living in Gali. The mentioned initiative comes from Akaki Zvanba, Chairman of the Council of Samurzakhano Abkhazians. On April 15, he wrote a letter to the speaker of the de facto parliament of Abkhazia, Valeri Kvarchia, asking him to facilitate the acquisition of Abkhazian ethnic identity and Abkhazian citizenship (passports) for those, whose surnames, according to the letter, were changed from Abkhazian into Georgian as a result of the 1930-1950 Soviet repression.

According to the letter, 125 people restored their Samurzakhano Abkhazian surnames (residents of Gali, Ochamchire and Tkvarcheli), although they have not renounced their Georgian citizenship. According to the same letter, 600 more people had been waiting for a positive response to their request for the restoration of ethnicity or "historical nationality", but were refused due to their Georgian citizenship. That is why the Council of Samurzakhano Abkhazians appealed to the speaker of the de facto parliament to consider the possibility of restoring "historic nationality" of citizens of a foreign country (in this case, Georgia) and stateless persons and to grant them citizenship of the de facto republic of Abkhazia.

Based on this request, the de facto parliament of Abkhazia discussed amendments to the Abkhazia’s Acts of the Law on the Status of Citizenship and Civil Code. It seems that the de facto parliament of Abkhazia is going to allow the "restoration of lost Abkhazian citizenship" for those who wish so. It is expected that this opportunity will also be given to those who currently have Georgian citizenship. As a rule, the de facto government of Abkhazia helps holders of Abkhazian passports to obtain Russian passports. The passport of the Russian Federation may be an important motivator in this process.

According to the source of the Democracy Research Institute, despite these discussions, the process of “changing nationality” is not fast and the number of so-called Abkhazians from Samurzakhano does not exceed 1 000. The reason may be that until now the de facto government of Abkhazia had been in no hurry to grant Abkhazian nationality to those who wished to do so. For their part, neither the residents of Gali tried to take advantage of this "opportunity." However, since the discussion of this issue has been resumed and intensified in Abkhazia and as relevant legislative changes are being drafted, it is possible that the number of people wishing to "restore historical nationality" will increase, especially if they do not have to renounce Georgian citizenship.

The readiness of the government of Abkhazia is evident. According to the source of the Democracy Research Institute, Saida Butba, a parliamentary representative of the de facto president of Abkhazia, came up with a responsive initiative and suggested that the government establish a registry together with the De facto Abkhazian Academy of Sciences to register the surnames that “were changed into Georgian” during the Soviet era.

It is possible to see the contours of the involvement of the Russian soft power in this process in the future. The head of the Russian community in Sukhumi, Roman Ryazantsev, launched the Abkhaz-Russian Strategic Alliance Platform, which aims to support the de facto government of Abkhazia in its ideological and propaganda activities. The memorandum of cooperation with this organization was signed by Zaur Adleiba, a member of the political board of the de facto Abkhazian ruling party Amtsakhara. The organization declared its activities in the Gali region a priority, as the influence of the "opponent" (Georgia) is strong there. It is unknown at this time how the Abkhaz-Russian Strategic Alliance Platform will help the de facto government, however, the Russian soft power propaganda and ideological work is definitely expected to intensify for the purpose of changing the mood of the Gali population.