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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Abkhaz Snap Up Russian Passports

SUKHUMI, Abkhazia -- The Abkhaz people have infuriated Georgia by rushing to acquire Russian passports before Moscow tightens regulations on citizenship Monday.

Since June 1, the Congress of Russian Communities of Abkhazia, a public organization, has been collecting Soviet-era travel documents and sending them to a consular department specially set up by the Russian Foreign Ministry in the city of Sochi, on the Black Sea coast just north of the breakaway region. After they are checked, they are returned with a new page inserted certifying Russian citizenship.

By June 25, an estimated 150,000 people in Abkhazia had acquired the new passports, joining 50,000 who already had Russian citizenship. Seventy percent of the population are now Russian citizens.

This mass acquisition of Russian passports is bound to have a large but as yet unclear impact on the future of a region that the international community regards as an integral part of Georgia, even though it has functioned independently of Tbilisi for nine years.

Abkhazia already uses Russian rubles as its main currency and is almost totally reliant on Moscow for its economic survival.

Now the wholesale conversion to Russian citizenship, apparently with Moscow's consent, will make Abkhazia even more a part of its northern neighbor.

The operation has caused outrage in Tbilisi, worsening its already shaky relations with Moscow. The Georgian Foreign Ministry issued a statement insisting that the Abkhaz people are Georgians and calling the passport allocation an "unprecedented illegal campaign."

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze promised to demand an explanation from President Vladimir Putin.

The speaker of parliament, Nino Burjanadze, said she would raise the matter at an upcoming Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe parliamentary assembly.

Other lawmakers said the only proper response to what they termed Russia's "annexation" of its territory was to withdraw from all agreements Tbilisi had signed over Abkhazia and leave the Commonwealth of Independent States.

The window for the Abkhaz people closes Monday, when a new Russian law comes into force that considerably toughens the requirements for acquiring Russian citizenship.

The drive has gripped the breakaway Georgian republic for the entire month of June, paralyzing an economy already considerably slowed down due to the broadcast of World Cup matches during working hours.

Abkhaz authorities, although officially not involved in the registration process, have been openly encouraging it. "Residents receiving the citizenship of the Russian Federation will help create closer relations [with] Russia," said Abkhaz Prime Minister Anri Djergenia, who advocates that Abkhazia should have what he calls "associate status" within Russia.

Government officials said privately that the passport acquisition was agreed upon with the Kremlin during a visit by Djergenia to Moscow in May.

Djergenia does not disguise the fact that he has been a Russian citizen himself for several years. "I have made my choice," he said. "The more Russian citizens who live in Abkhazia, the greater the guarantee that Georgia will not begin a new war. Every great power is duty bound to defend its citizens, wherever they live."

In order to cope with the demand, government offices have spent the entire month working from early morning to midnight without a break. Huge waiting lines have formed. Villagers have abandoned work in the fields to go to the towns and have their documents processed.

People give various reasons for applying. Some say they want to receive a Russian pension, which is worth around 50 times more than one in Abkhazia. Others want to lose the tag of being a person without nationality and be able to travel abroad, as the Abkhaz nationality is not recognized by the outside world.

Most people here still carry Soviet-era passports, long after the rest of the former Soviet Union brought in new citizenship documents. But in 18 months, Russia will stop accepting their validity. Requests by the Abkhaz authorities for their citizens to be given UN documents have been turned down.

"You get the impression that the bureaucrats of the UN and other international organizations are more worried about the territorial integrity of Georgia than observing the elementary rights of a whole people," said Tsiza Gumba, a human rights activist. "The international community's lack of flexibility on this question has created the current situation."

Russia represents salvation for most Abkhaz people. Lasha is a veteran of the Georgia-Abkhaz war and the father of four children. Since the end of the fighting, neither her nor his wife Gunda has left the republic, but he wants his children to have the chance to do so.

"I don't want my children to end up locked inside Abkhazia, while other people have the chance to move freely across the whole world. And I see nothing wrong with the fact that Russia will help them," he said.

"I would rather die of hunger than take a Georgian passport," he said. "That would be a betrayal of the memory of my brother, who died in the war."

The passport rush has proved an unexpected money-spinner for Abkhaz officials. Some of the offices handing out application forms have earned more in June than they usually do in a year.

Others with an entrepreneurial flair have cashed in. The small number of people in Abkhazia who own photocopiers have been particularly lucky. Some have placed them in the streets and attracted long lines.

Street hawkers have also been doing a roaring trade. "We have to combine business with pleasure," said Lena, a young woman doing brisk business selling ice cream outside the Sukhumi office of the Congress of Russian Communities. Lena gives free legal advice to all comers, regardless of whether they buy ice cream.

The Abkhaz authorities see the mass acquisition of Russian citizenship as a first step toward acquiring legitimacy for the republic. "The people have been recognized, next it's the country's turn. That hour will come," Djergenia said.

Opposition leader Leonid Lakerbaia was less optimistic, saying he did not know what the wider consequences would be. "But even so, I would not take it on myself to advise someone to take Russian citizenship, since present-day Abkhazia is not capable of providing what a Russian passport provides," he said.

Inal Khashig is BBC Caucasus and Central Asia correspondent in Abkhazia. Margarita Akhvlediani, the Institute for War & Peace Reporting's Georgia editor in Tbilisi, contributed to this report, which was written for IWPR.