By Eka Janashia (05/07/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On April 22, Georgia’s ministry of foreign affairs (MFA) dismissed information about the mass distribution of Russian passports to ethnic Armenians residing in Georgia’s Samtskhe-Javakheti region. Armenians constitute 54 percent of the population in the region, which borders Armenia and Turkey to the south and southwest.
Georgian media reported in April that lines of people were queuing to obtain Russian passports outside the former Russian embassy in Tbilisi. The rising demand for obtaining Russian citizenship was triggered by the amended law on citizenship that came into force in Russia recently. The law envisages fast-track procedures for granting Russian citizenship to foreign citizens or persons without citizenship, who or whose families live within the borders of the former Russian empire or the Soviet Union, and speak fluent Russian. The special commission will determine the applicants’ eligibility through interviews conducted in Russian consulates across the post-Soviet area. Approved candidates must renounce their prior citizenship, according to the law.
Allegedly, the amendment encouraged applications from Russian-speaking Georgian citizens, especially those who seek jobs in Russia to provide for their families through remittances.
However, Georgia’s MFA said the reports about distribution of Russian passports have been overstated. According to Deputy Foreign Minister David Zalkaniani, the Georgian government is studying the amendments cautiously to elaborate corresponding legal mechanisms, and reminded that Georgian legislation rules out multiple citizenships.
Whereas Russia’s new citizenship legislation could be considered a cause for concern, the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) coalition has reacted calmly. President Georgi Margvelashvili said Georgia should remain alert but must not overstate the danger. Margvelashvili does not believe that isolating Moscow is a right choice, “because alienating Russia makes Russia even more aggressive, unpredictable and dangerous.”
There is “nothing special” about the law facilitating the issuance of Russian passports, according to Zurab Abashidze, Georgia’s special envoy to Russia, who put the Russian legislation in relation to the developments in Ukraine and doubted that it had any relevance to Georgia. Abashidze’s comment came after he met with Russia’s deputy foreign minister for a sixth round of talks in Prague on April 16. According to Abashidze, Karasin assured him that Russia did not plan to prevent Georgia from signing an Association Agreement with the EU this summer.
Whereas GD is downplaying the issue, one of its leaders, Minister of Defense Irakli Alasania, declared that the Kremlin intends to split public opinion on foreign policy to increase its leverage in Georgian society. This method has already been tried in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, and is now actively being carried out in Ukraine, Alasania said. According to Alasania, the distribution of Russian passports to Georgian citizens is not alarming because the situation is under control. However, anti-state organizations have been appearing like mushrooms recently in Georgia and the government needs to confront it through consolidating its resources and enhancing its counterintelligence services, the minister said.
On April 23, the NGO Eurasian choice of Georgia held a meeting at Tbilisi’s international press-center. The head of the organization, Archil Chkoidze, strongly questioned Georgia’s pro-Western course and insisted that Georgia’s foreign policy priorities must be determined by a referendum. The restoration of territorial integrity and economic prosperity is only possible through rapprochement with Moscow, he said.
Such opinions may indeed reflect the approaches mentioned by Alasania. Likewise, Georgian analysts claim that the threats coming from Russia are real and should be countered adequately.
Many Georgian residents hold both Georgian and Russian passports, often illegally, to simplify travel to Russia. Migrant workers constitute a considerable share of these, though some also seek Russian citizenship in order to obtain a state pension – which is higher in Russia than in Georgia – or other economic benefits.
The distribution of passports in Georgia may reach out to vulnerable segments of the population and incentivize them to obtain Russian citizenship, which may be what Alasania implied by the division of society and potential threats coming from the Kremlin. This is especially true for the Samtskhe-Javakheti region, densely populated by ethnic Armenians who hardly know Georgian but speak Russian fluently. The “passportization” of compactly settled ethnic minorities may well enable Moscow to repeat a Crimean scenario in Georgia. The government’s immediate task should thus be to better explain the advantages of the Association Agreement and the visa liberalization policy with the EU.
The Ukrainian case demonstrates that the Kremlin can use its proclaimed right to protect its citizens as a reason to invade any post-Soviet country. Notably, the 2008 Russia-Georgia August war was preceded by a process of intense “passportization” in Georgia’s breakaway regions.