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.
By Johanna Popjanevski and Carolin Funke (04/23/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
Tensions are again rising between the ruling Georgian Dream coalition (GD) and the main opposition party United National Movement (UNM) ahead of the local elections, scheduled for June. Over the last month the government has stepped up its campaign of investigating and prosecuting former government officials, including former President Mikheil Saakashvili and his National Security Advisor Giga Bokeria, who have both recently been summoned for interrogation by the authorities. The targeting of UNM officials carries troublesome implications for Georgia, as they give rise to perceptions of selective justice. Like in Ukraine, political instability in Georgia can open up to national unrest, external manipulation and may ultimately delay the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration.
By Valeriy Dzutsev (04/23/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
After a long period of political bargaining between Moscow and the Georgian breakaway territory of South Ossetia, the latter managed to obtain unexpected concessions from Russia. The Russian government’s desire to implement certain policies in the region is successfully obstructed by local politicians. Russian experts are divided on whether Russia should take similar steps in the South Caucasus as in Ukraine. While some argue in favor of quickly moving on with other territorial gains including South Ossetia, others call for a more cautious approach. The Russian government may keep the problem of Georgian breakaway territories as another foreign policy instrument to influence its southern neighbor in case it proceeds to join NATO.
By Eka Janashia (04/23/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On April 7, Georgia’s Minister of Internal Affairs Alexander Chikaidze warned the public that the opposition United National Movement (UNM) party plans to implement a EuroMaidan scenario in connection with the upcoming local elections by using criminal elements and Ukrainian EuroMaidan activists.
The minister claimed that EuroMaidan activists from Ukraine are already training Georgian counterparts in mobilizing rallies and setting up tents in the center of Tbilisi under the cover of non-governmental organizations. By destabilizing the situation, they will compel the authorities to use coercive measures and then showcase violations of citizens’ rights in Georgia. According to Chikaidze, UNM is purchasing second-hand tires to stir violent protest with burning barricades while the Ministry of Internal Affairs is doing everything to prevent disorder and “the groups that are now trying to destabilize the situation will be strictly punished in accordance with the law.”
While in Ukraine, the authorities’ reversal of the country’s European path caused popular unrest, there are no corresponding intentions in Georgia, Chikaidze said. Conversely, the minister stated that compared to previous years, the protection of human rights, privacy and freedom of opinion has been radically increased and there is a real perspective of signing an Association Agreement with the EU in June, which will bring Georgia closer to Europe.
Commenting on the minister’s statement, Georgia’s Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said that Chikaidze just spoke about “those unattainable wishes that some abnormal people may have” and added that anyone who dares to carry out a destabilizing scenario “will be punished very severely.”
Surprisingly, Chikaidze’s announcement was not endorsed by some of the Georgian Dream (GD) leaders. Majority MP Tina Khidasheli criticized Chikaidze, saying that such statements demonstrates the weakness of the government; if the MIA expects a coup d’état in the country, it should act immediately rather than discuss the issue publicly.
UNM termed the minister’s accusations “total nonsense” and a “very cheap attempt” to veil current political setbacks. UNM’s secretary for foreign relations, Giga Bokeria, insisted that instead of paying attention to rising crime, security concerns related to Russia and economic stagnation, the government has invented an absurd story and seeks to sow panic.
UNM laments that the government deliberately seeks to destroy a pro-Western, democratic opposition party through policies of intimidation and repression. To illustrate these claims, UNM quotes the case of MP Nugzar Tsiklauri. On March 30, Tsiklauri was allegedly assaulted by eight masked men with electroshock devices trying to drag him into a car. After the failed attempt, the attackers left the scene while the injured lawmaker was taken to a hospital.
Another complaint from UNM concerns the pre-election environment. UNM insists that the main opposition party is not awarded the possibility to conduct a proper election campaign and that its members have in several cities been prevented from meeting with locals and discussing projects suspended by the government.
On April 11, UNM MP Irma Nadirashvili provided details on the government’s misconduct. According to her, the attack on UNM representatives in Anaklia was coordinated by Goga Nachkebia, head of the Special Operations Department (SOD) of Samegrelo region while in Kakheti; the UNM’s planned events were interrupted by employees of the local self-government body. The head of the department for relations with local self-government bodies of the Imereti regional administration, Kote Lomidze, orchestrated parallel protest rallies in Tskaltubo to hinder UNM’s campaign, whereas in Tbilisi and Batumi this responsibility was assumed by activists of the Democratic Movement-United Georgia party led by Nino Burjanadze.
While the pre-election environment grows tenser, some analysts point to emerging rifts within the ruling GD that could lead to a disintegration of the coalition. The disagreement between President Giorgi Margvelashvili and former PM Bidzina Ivanishvili demonstrates a first sign of such a rift (see the 04/02/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst). In addition Gubaz Sanikidze, a GD member and leader of the political party National Forum (NF), stated on March 18 that he did not exclude the possibility of leaving the coalition.
Khidasheli’s recent statements also deserve attention in this regard. Firstly, her criticism of Chikaidze, the head of one of the key ministries, was unexpected. However, Khidasheli gave an even starker statement at a session of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) on April 10, where she declared that it was not the president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, who provoked Russia to invade Georgia in 2008. “Whether you respond to Moscow’s provocations or keep silent, the result will be the same,” she said. This approach directly contradicts that of GD, which has since it came to power 2012 endeavored to launch a probe into the Georgian governments’ faults during the August 2008 war (see the 04/17/2013 issue of the CACI Analyst).
The appearing rifts within the coalition may be indicative of Ivanishvili’s waning sway over Georgian politics. Although he left politics several months ago, his reputation has remained a primary source of legitimacy for the country’s key political figures – Georgia’s president and PM. Thus, Ivanishvili’s declining political assets cast a diverse shadow, especially ahead of the local elections.
The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.