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Alexander Ryhoravich Lukashenko

Alexander Ryhoravich LukashenkoLukashenko

Georgia’s not so “neutral” passports

During her visit to Georgia, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the announcement that the US will accept Georgia’s status-neutral passports as a legitimate form of travel documents. What exactly are these passports and how will this announcement affect the relations of the involved countries? An analysis by Roy Yu

Georgian authorities in Tbilisi have been issuing these status-neutral passports as early as July 2011 to the country’s two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These so-called status-neutral passports, however, have not gotten the attention of the international media until very recently. In the beginning of June, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went on a diplomatic visit to Georgia. At a meeting at Batumi, a Georgian city at the Black Sea, on June 6, Clinton discussed the ways with which “Georgia can reach out to the people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions” with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Immediately after the meeting, Clinton voiced the American support of these status-neutral passports at a news conference. She stated that the action is “a strong step toward reconciliation.”

“Soon, US Embassies and consulates around the world will accept the status-neutral travel document for any resident from these regions who chooses to use them for travel or study in the United States,” Clinton said. “This would be a strong step toward reconciliation that supports a peaceful and just resolution of the conflict.”

What exactly do these travel documents entail?

Georgian authorities first introduced these passports in July 2011 in hope to facilitate residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia traveling at home and abroad. Even though Tbilisi officially recognizes the identification cards and passports issued by the two regional authorities, in practice, traveling within Georgia proper with such documents can be greatly difficult, let alone traveling abroad.

In 2008, after the bitter war that was fought near the Russian-Georgian border, Abkhazia and South Ossetia declared their independence that only a few countries around the world recognize even to this day. Therefore, for traveling abroad, only those countries that recognize them as independent – Russia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, to name a few – accept passports issued by the two regions as legitimate travel documents. Despite the fact that some residents in the two regions hold Russian passports, they are often denied visas by Western countries, namely the US, which makes oversea travels literally impossible.

Acceptance and benefits

Prior to Clinton’s recent announcement, only a few countries, including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Baltic States, and Japan, recognized Georgia’s status-neutral passports. However, as most people believe, with the acceptance of the US, more and more countries would most likely follow suit and recognize these travel documents as legitimate in the upcoming years.

Along with these passports, Georgian authorities have also introduced the Neutral Identification Card to the two regions in order to facilitate travels within Georgia and open up access to some social services offered by the Georgian government. For example, the Georgian Ministry of Education has announced that it will provide free university education to all residents of the two regions who have obtained these status-neutral passports and Neutral Identification Cards.

Why do Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Russia oppose these documents?

Georgia: left Abkhazia, right South Ossetia

Since 2008, Russian authorities have either granted Russian citizenship and/or issued Russian passports to many residents of the two breakaway regions. Therefore, first and foremost, Georgia’s status-neutral passports pose a great challenge for Moscow over its influence in the region.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has stated that these documents are “scams” and “tricks” put forth by the Georgian authorities. They fail to be status-neutral because Georgia’s country code, GEO, is clearly marked on those documents. Since Russia, at least, recognizes the two regions’ independence, such documents are not acceptable. In addition, as Abkhaz deputy foreign minister, Irakli Khintba, points out, these passports lose their status of neutrality in terms of the provider of consular services abroad. As these documents state that, should a holder of this document require consular services while traveling abroad, a Georgian diplomatic mission in that country will have to provide such services. This is problematic insofar that should not Abkhaz and South Ossetian diplomatic missions be providing these services to their citizens who are using these so-called “status-neutral” passports?

“They want to lure you into a trap, which the authorities in Tbilisi have been placing methodically for a long time already. Tbilisi’s goal is obvious – to return us back into Georgia,” Khintba said. “The Georgian authorities say that the goal of these neutral passports is to de-isolate residents of Abkhazia and to allow Abkhazians to travel around the world. This is cynical lie. If the authorities in Tbilisi care so much about our rights, why they have been stifling us with international blockade?”

Abkhaz leader Aleksandr Ankvab has even stated that he would expel all international organizations that encourage Abkhaz residents to apply for these documents from Abkhazia. The foreign minister of Abkhazia, Vyacheslav Chirikba, said that he would continue to “fight for the recognition of Abkhaz passports or Russian passports used by Abkhaz citizens.”

Are these documents the only solution?

To all parties, the issuing of these documents and the recent American support are problematic and controversial. The question of neutrality of these documents is the greatest issue at hand. With the acceptance of the US, it is highly probable that other countries would most likely follow the trend. That being said, this is not certain. With mainly the US and Georgia being on one of the extremes and Russia, along with the two breakaway regions, being on the other, maybe, at some point in time, we should find a compromising solution similar to what the European Union has in mind. While welcoming the introduction of these documents, the EU has stated that these documents “should not be the only means of travel for these populations until they are more widely accepted by them.”

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1st picture (source): oscepa / Creative Commons License

2nd picture (source): United Nations Cartographic Section, with amendments by User:ChrisO / public domain