Amendments To Citizenship Law Compound Political Tensions In Abkhazia
August 07, 2009
Meeting in emergency session on August 6, days after the official closure of the spring session, the Abkhaz parliament voted unanimously to ask President Sergei Bagapsh not to sign into law amendments the parliament enacted six days earlier to the law on citizenship passed in November 2005.
The opposition had protested those amendments, arguing that extending Abkhaz citizenship to the overwhelmingly Georgian population of Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion opens the door to a new wave of Georgian "colonization."
Bagapsh has established a commission that will assess the draft amendments and rule by August 10 on whether they create a threat to Abkhaz statehood. The parliament committee on legislation will then revise them as deemed appropriate.
The controversial amendments were approved on July 31 by a vote of 20 in favor and 11 against, with one abstention. They defined as qualifying for Abkhaz citizenship all ethnic Abkhaz, regardless of their place of residence, even if they are citizens of another country. Also eligible, provided that they have not renounced their Abkhaz citizenship in written form, are persons who at the time of the October 1999 referendum endorsing the constitution adopted in 1994 had lived without interruption in Abkhazia for a minimum of five years.
The provision to which the opposition took exception, however, affirmed the right to Abkhaz citizenship of those former Georgian residents of Gali who fled during the 1992-93 war and who prior to the passage of the 2005 citizenship law accepted the Abkhaz authorities' 1999 invitation to return; those Georgians must, however, give up Georgian citizenship in the event that they had acquired it. (The 2005 citizenship law provides only for dual Abkhaz-Russian citizenship.)
Of the estimated 55,000 Georgians currently registered as living in Gali, only 4,000 have formally applied for Abkhaz citizenship.
Opposition deputy Daur Arshba was quoted on August 1 as claiming that the amendments did not take into account recommendations made by the parliament's committee on legislation. A second opposition deputy, Valery Bganba, argued that the amendments are discriminatory insofar as they do not extend to Greeks, Armenians, and members of other ethnic groups who fled Abkhazia during the 1992-93 war the same right to Abkhaz citizenship as they give the Georgians.
Also on August 1, three opposition groups -- the Forum of National Unity and the war veterans' organizations Aruaa and Akhyatsa -- issued a joint statement denouncing the amendments as granting equal rights to "those who fought for Abkhazia's independence and those who for years served Georgia's colonial interests."
They calculated that the number of Georgians who now qualify for Abkhaz citizenship is equal to the number of Abkhaz who already hold it. They further claim that those Georgians will not be required to renounce their Georgian citizenship in order to obtain Abkhaz passports.
The statement accused the parliament of ignoring the potential dangerous consequences of those provisions, which they argued "lay the foundations for a new wave of colonization of Abkhazia by Georgians and for a prolonged period of internal confrontation." They suggested that the sole rationale for the amendments was that President Bagapsh cannot be certain he will be reelected in the election due in December and is therefore seeking to win Georgian votes.
Four days later, on August 5, the same three opposition groups convened a demonstration in Sukhumi that was attended by some 300 people, including Bagapsh's defeated rival in the 2004 presidential ballot, Raul Khadjimba, and those opposition parliament deputies who on July 31 voted against the draft amendments. Addressing that demonstration, Arshba argued that given the level of corruption in Abkhazia, anyone who wants to "buy" Abkhaz citizenship will now be free to do so, and he called on Bagapsh to veto the amendments.
The demonstration participants subsequently made their way to parliament and disrupted a press briefing by parliament speaker Nugzar Ashuba. There was a heated exchange, during which the opposition deputies accused their colleagues who had voted on July 31 in favor of the amendments of betraying national interests.
Ashuba in turn accused the opposition of trying to destabilize the political situation in the run-up to the December ballot. He said the parliament will not debate the revised version of the amendments before the election.
Bagapsh has made no public comment on the contretemps. The opposition has criticized him repeatedly in recent months, first for purportedly making unwarranted concessions to Russia, and then for remarks he made in an interview last month with the Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy on the prospects that more countries might recognize Abkhazia as an independent state.
Copyright (c) 2009. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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