Non-Abkhaz residents forced to prove their right to citizenship
A simple request for a new internal passport, made by Sukhum resident Elena Kuvichko, may threaten her Abkhaz citizenship.
The reason is that from 1994 to 1998 she studied in a pedagogical institute in Luhansk, and did not live in Abkhazia at the time.
The situation looks absurd, but there are many people like Elena in Abkhazia, several hundred already.
It’s all because of a new law on citizenship.
The period during which Kuvchiko left for her studies is very important: it was in those years that Abkhazia began giving out passports for the first time. Elena received her first Abkhaz passport in 2006, and the passport-visa service of Abkhaz did not question her studying abroad at the time.
However, in May 2016 the republic issued new passports, and instituted new procedures for exchanging the old ones. These procedures will continue until the end of 2018. The reason for the exchange is mass violations of the law connected with the issuance of passports to Georgians who live in the Gali region.
[su_quote] Most of the Georgians who live in Abkhazia are Georgian citizens, and Abkhazia allows for dual citizenship only with Russia. The scandal surrounding the issue of dual Abkhaz-Georgian citizenship was a catalyst for the resignation of the president in 2014, Aleksandr Ankvab. [/su_quote]
he new law divides residents into two categories – ethnic Abkhaz and the rest. The Abkhaz do not have to prove they are citizens, nor do they have to prove that they do not have Georgian citizenship.
But the rest face many limitations which have caused many problems for residents, including Elena Kuvichko.
Now, while exchanging old passports, residents of Abkhazia of any other nationality most prove that they were in Abkhazia between 1994 and 1999. In order to receive a new passport, they must present a comprehensive list of documents: high school and college diplomas, Soviet passports, labour and military service records and others.
All non-Abkhaz people must now address passport offices and are often faced with humiliating interrogations. Some have been deprived of citizenship even after they have proven their right to it, and must go through the process of restoring citizenship through the President’s Citizenship Committee.
It is significant that, despite the often humiliating nature of the procedure, not a single person has filed a suit in a court of law. And not one national minority community has made a single comment on the issue.
Only once, on 20 March, when the problem was being discussed in the Public Chamber of Abkhazia, did Armenians note that the procedure for exchanging passports ‘forces people to feel second-class’.
this same meeting, Elena Kuvichko told her story. She is one of those who was deprived of citizenship, and only because she was studying abroad between 1994-1998. She refuses to go through the procedure to restore her citizenship and to become the first local resident to appeal to the Constitutional Court – when, of course, it will finally start working again.
At the beginning of March, the President of Abkhazia Raul Khadjimba got involved and ordered the Ministry of Internal Affairs to present amendments to the law on citizenship in order to get rid of ‘legal gaps’ which create artificial problems for citizens while changing their old internal passports for new ones.
The head of the Passport Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Eduard Margania, says that these amendments were prepared and sent on to the presidential administration on 19 March. The law exempts those who were studying, working or receiving treatment abroad between 1994 and 1999 from having to prove their right to citizenship and affirms their right to a new passport.
However, the lawyer of the Public Chamber of Abkhazia, Oleg Papaskiri, says that the amendments are only a half-measure. He believes that it is necessary to ‘clearly and unequivocally declare that the law on citizenship has no retroactive force and people who have citizenship at the time of its entry into force can not be deprived of citizenship automatically without appropriate procedures and reasons’.
The resolution of the issue is, at any rate, in the hands of the parliament, which has yet to receive any amendments, suggestions of the Ministry of Internal Affairs or any other alternative offers. Moreover, there are only nine months left in the ‘passportisation’ programme.