As the issuance of new passports continues in Abkhazia, many non–ethnic Abkhaz — ethnic Armenians, Russians, Georgians, and others — fear the reason behind the new regulations is to deprive them of citizenship.
Ruslan Yaylyan, an ethnic Armenian from Abkhazia’s capital of Sukhum, told OC Media that when he applied for a new passport last year it was his second time applying for an Abkhazian passport and he did not expect any problems. However, ten days after submitting the required documents, Ruslan was asked to come to the passport office.
He recalls that the passport officer asked him rudely to bring his military ID, then his birth certificate, and then his conscription card. Ruslan says the process continued for three months.
During the 1992–1993 Georgian–Abkhaz war Ruslan was twelve years old and his family’s house, along with all of his documents, was burnt down by Georgian troops. After the war, the process of recovering the documents wasn’t easy — many people used ad hoc certificates instead of passports.
Ruslan says he wasn’t officially registered as a resident of Abkhazia until 1999, but that he never left. He even served in the Abkhazian army, which he can prove with his military ID.
Ex post facto
The process of exchanging old passports for newer ones in Abkhazia has been in motion since 2016. Abkhazia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs told OC Media that around 140,000 passports are to be reissued.
A rule in the new citizenship law means that in order to replace their old passports with the updated ones, citizens of Abkhazia must prove that they lived in Abkhazia between 1994 and 1999.
However, a number of non–ethnic Abkhaz citizens told OC Media they saw the rule as being discriminatory, claiming it was not being applied to ethnic Abkhaz people.
Issues arose after the 2005 citizenship law turned out to be retroactive. The 2005 law annulled the previous citizenship law adopted in 1993, essentially stripping citizenship from people who had been granted it under the previous law.
According to article 5 of the 2005 citizenship law, to be eligible for citizenship a person must have permanently resided in the territory of Abkhazia for at least five years at the time of Abkhazia’s 1999 declaration of independence and must not have renounced their citizenship.
‘People who left Abkhazia between 1994–1999 didn’t understand that they would be breaking the law and could lose their citizenship’, says Oleg Papaskiri a lawyer in Abkhazia.
‘Applying the  law on citizenship against those who didn’t live in Abkhazia at that time or those who did but can’t prove it as they are trying to obtain new passports is illegal’, Papaskiri tells OC Media.
The same 2005 law states that citizenship of Abkhazia is equal no matter how it was acquired. It also states that a person living abroad is not grounds to revoke their citizenship and that depriving someone of citizenship requires a presidential decree.
A Russian manbag
Ruslan says that each of his trips to the passport office ended with a ‘new adventure’.
‘Once I even brought along my commander and neighbours as witnesses but even that wasn’t enough for the passport office. At some point it seemed to me that the problem wasn’t in the documents, that they just wanted to shake out some money’, Ruslan says.
‘Another time when I came, one of the officers saw me and said, “uh-huh, you walk around with a manbag? So you live in Russia?” For me, this was so outrageous and brazen that I could hardly restrain myself. And this is how most of the passport office staff behave. I won’t even mention the huge queues there. They let their acquaintances jump the queue while elderly people stand there for hours’, Ruslan says.
‘In the end, I received my passport, although it came with humiliation. If they hadn’t given it to me, I would probably have sold everything and left the country. You won’t get a job in Abkhazia without a passport’.
The passport replacement process has been closely connected to the legal status of the inhabitants of eastern Abkhazia, the majority of who are ethnic Georgian. In 2009–2014, ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia’s Gal District were issued Abkhazian passports. The Abkhazian government later ruled that the process was illegal.
According to the current citizenship law, people who didn’t reside in Abkhazia between 1994–1999 are not citizens. Gal’s ethnic Georgian population, most of which was displaced by the war, were only officially allowed to return to Gal in 1999.
On top of this, in 2013, Abkhazia passed a law according to which only Abkhazian–Russian dual citizenship is allowed. This served as an additional legal basis for a mass de-passportisation of ethnic Georgians in Gal, the majority of whom held Georgian citizenship as well.
The head of the passport department at Abkhazia’s Interior Ministry, Eduard Manargiya told OC Media that while issuing new passports there were cases of ethnic Georgians simultaneously having Abkhazian ID documents and being citizens of Georgia.
‘They still received the new passports, which were later taken away’, Manargiya says.
[Read more about identity documents in Gal District on OC Media: Georgians in Gali — foreigners in their own land]
‘I was brought to tears’
Others who lost their right to obtain new passports include those who between 1994–1999 studied at Russian universities, served in the Abkhazian army, or were pensioners who travelled to Russia to collect Russian pensions.
Marina Chistyakova is an ethnic Russian native to Sukhum. She stayed in Abkhazia during the war but in 1995 moved to Chelyabinsk in Russia’s Ural Mountains region — to care for her ill mother. Marina returned to Abkhazia in the 2000s and obtained an Abkhazian passport, but when the time came to renew it, she ran into trouble.
‘I was brought to tears because of my Abkhazian passport’, Marina tells OC Media. ‘Every trip to the passport office ended in scandal and insults. Passport officers don’t spare words when they find out that you’re not an ethnic Abkhaz.’
‘My husband died during the war, defending Abkhazia. I love my country very much, but seeing this injustice, I just want to leave. Replacing a passport turned into discrimination and that’s not good if we’re to live in a civilised state’, Marina says.
While Ruslan Yaylyan, in the end, did manage to prove his right to a passport, Marina is still fighting for hers.
‘The last time [I went to the passport office] they asked for my diploma. What does this have to do with a passport? We are simply humiliated each time and I’m not at an age where I’m going to endure it. I will probably sue them, otherwise, this problem won’t get solved. It’s not our fault there are gaps in the Abkhazian legislation’, Marina says.
Ethnic Abkhaz are more equal
Although not stated explicitly in the legislation, in practice, the law does not appear to have been applied to ethnic Abkhaz, who have no restrictions in obtaining Abkhazian citizenship.
Despite making repeated inquiries, OC Media was unable to find a single ethnic Abkhaz person who had been asked to bring additional documents or been subject to additional verification processes.
A spokesperson for the Abkhazian Ministry of Internal Affairs told OC Media that an internal manual regulates the procedures for replacing passports and which documents must be submitted.
However, they said the manual specifies that ‘special citizens’ are required to submit a number of additional documents. No public information is available on who these ‘special citizens’ are.
According to the ministry, the manual says it is up to the Foreign Ministry, Interior Ministry, and State Security Service to assign people to this category.
The manual is not publicly available, and the Interior Ministry told OC Media that it was an internal document and would not be published.
The Interior Ministry told OC Media that ‘virtually all’ people of the ‘special’ category who had applied for an Abkhazian passport had received their documents. They also said that of 95,500 passports received for renewal by 1 September, only 520 were rejected.
All place names and terminology used in this article are the words of the author alone, and may not necessarily reflect the views of OC Media’s editorial board.