Ramesh Ganohariti
Ph.D. Researcher, Dublin City University. Ireland

National identity and citizenship are complex phenomena, influenced by a multitude of conditions. One way to explore the phenomenon of their inter-relationship is to adopt a politico-legal approach and study the citizenship legislation of a state. This piece explores how the development of citizenship legislation over the last three decades reflects the national identity of the Abkhazian state. The reflections are based on an analysis of citizenship legislation/literature and interviews with Abkhazian officials and citizens.

Citizenship legislation is a tool used to include desirable populations and exclude undesirable groups. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the newly independent republics had to define their citizenry. Most states followed the “new state model” which granted citizenship to all those permanently residing in the state. Further, states generally have citizenship laws that are either ethno-culturally selective (jus sanguinis), territorially selective (jus solis) or a mixture of the two.

Present-day Abkhazia is a young republic, but it has a century-long history that has influenced its national identity. Similarly, Abkhazia’s citizenship legislation is heavily influenced by preceding Soviet policy. In 1993 with the adoption of its first citizenship law, Abkhazia followed a more ethno-culturally selective approach, which did not fit the “new state model” approach. Accordingly, all persons whose parents or grandparents were born on the territory were recognised as citizens. Furthermore, the ethnic Abkhazian diaspora was recognised as having the right to Abkhazian citizenship.

The ethno-culturally selective character became further strengthened following the passing of a citizenship law in 2005, which retroactively changes citizenship-eligibility criteria by differentiating ethnic Abkhazians from other ethnic groups. Thus, the first group consists of ethnic Abkhazians (both in Abkhazia and outside of it) who are automatically entitled to citizenship. The second category consists of all other ethnic groups who had to prove their eligibility, such as by showing that they continuously resided in Abkhazia between 1994 and 1999.

Furthermore, Abkhazia is restrictive in relation to dual citizenship since non-ethnic Abkhazians can maintain dual citizenship only with Russia. While most ethnic and non-ethnic Abkhazians living in Abkhazia (except for ethnic Georgians) have Russian citizenship, this policy targets the ethnic Abkhazian diaspora. The aim of granting preferential access to citizenship for the Abkhazian diaspora is to correct the historical injustice faced by those who were persecuted and forced to flee the Caucasus in the second half of the 19th century. Since members of the Abkhazian diaspora are automatically recognised as Abkhazian citizens, all they must do is to file a request to confirm their citizenship and obtain a passport.

One group disproportionately affected by Abkhazian policy are ethnic Georgians (including Mingrelians) living in eastern Abkhazia. In the period 2008-2013, many ethnic Georgians were issued Abkhazian passports (and thus by extension were recognised as citizens). However, in 2013 the Parliament decreed that these passports were issued in contravention of the law, since most ethnic Georgians possessed Georgian citizenship/passports. The question of ethnic Georgians is not just a politically sensitive topic but also highly securitised. Due to the unresolved nature of the Abkhazian-Georgian conflict, it is inconceivable to maintain the citizenship of two conflicting states. For example, in the case of another military confrontation, the question of military obligations arises. Thus, by certain parts of the Abkhazian population, this group is seen as a ‘fifth column’.  

Several factors can explain the above. The first relates to demographics. Following the expulsion of the Abkhazians by Tsarist Russia and the resettlements that occurred during the Soviet Union, the Abkhazians became a minority in their own land. Thus, both the people and the state are very sensitive to any potential demographic changes, and all attempts are made to ensure that the ethnic balance does not change to the detriment of the ethnic Abkhazians. That is why, for example, there is a policy granting diasporan Abkhazians citizenship, and a Committee on Repatriation has been established which works with Abkhazian communities across the Middle East. Similarly, naturalisation is quite restrictive, since persons need to have lived in the republic continuously for 10 years (or 5 years if married to a citizen). Abkhazians are even hesitant to allow Russian citizens simplified access to Abkhazian citizenship. A second factor influencing citizenship policy is the unresolved conflict with Georgia. Prohibiting dual citizenship with Georgia and restricting access to citizenship for ethnic Georgians addresses concerns of both security and demography. Thus, until the conflict is resolved, the inclusion of ethnic Georgians into the demos will remain a highly sensitive topic.