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Georgia’s Passport Geopolitics

As one of his final acts before leaving office, outgoing Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili has announced an initiative that will provide expedited Georgian citizenship to adult resident foreigners in Georgia who want it.

November 12, 2013 - Tony Rinna - Articles and Commentary

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434px-Georgian_passport.jpg

The time frame to acquire citizenship will be open until November 17th. President Saakashvili has claimed the initiative will help the well-being of his country’s economy. He has stated that there are many businespeople living in Georgia who want Georgian nationality, and that allowing them citizenship will help anchor investment in the country.

Previously, applications for Georgian citizenship were handled by the country’s justice ministry, and could be denied at any point during the process without a specific or clear reason from the authorities. In fact, according to one Russian-language Georgian news outlet, Saakashvili indicated on his Facebook page that the largest desired target population for his initiative was the large number of former citizenship applicants who had been denied by the justice ministry, especially in cases of dual citizenship.

Citizenship as a political tool

This is not the first instance of the use of citizenship as a political tool to promote broader interests is Georgia, nor even to the post-Soviet space. On a micro scale, outgoing Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili was denied Georgian citizenship in 2011 (in a move that was later deemed illegal and was of course reversed). Ivanishvili had been living in Russia during the fall of the Soviet Union, and as such became a Russian citizen by default. In 2004 he was given Georgian nationality by presidential decree. Ivanishvili also acquired French citizenship in 2010, and one could possibly argue that dual or multiple nationality would be a valid reason to deny Ivanishvili the ability to run for office; recall that Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, as president-elect of Latvia, was forced to renounce her life-long Canadian citizenship before assuming Latvia’s highest political office. Yet many allege that this was actually a politically motivated action to prevent Ivanishvili from forming a sufficiently powerful political base to oppose Saakashvili.

In the broader context of the post-Soviet space, and Georgia in particular, granting citizenship to large numbers of people, usually an ethnic or linguistic minority, has been used by Russia as a foreign policy tool. In the context of the 2008 conflict in Georgia, Russia offered citizenship to residents of the disputed breakaway republics as well as to residents of Crimea as a way to justify Russian actions in defence of their “compatriots” living abroad (according to a recent poll conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 40 per cent of Crimea’s residents would like to have Russian citizenship. The second citizenship preferred was German, cited by 10.9 per cent of those polled).

Likewise, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in 2012 that the United States would recognise “status-neutral” passports issued by the Georgian government for residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia who wished to study in the West; during that same meeting, Mikheil Saakashvili presented Secretary Clinton with her very own Georgian passport. Earlier this autumn, Saakashvili granted Georgian citizenship to nearly 1,000 Turkish citizens of Georgian descent, and two years before that, Georgia and Turkey signed an agreement allowing for passport-free travel between the two countries for their respective citizens (they would only be required to present national identity cards at customs). These moves by the Georgian government to facilitate travel and extend nationality to a limited number of residents of this powerful NATO state constitute a small, subtle step toward bringing Georgia closer to the Alliance.

The soft power of issuing passports

This most recent development in Georgian policy marks a new step in what appears to be a growing trend in the post-Soviet space; namely, the use of citizenship rights and passports as a tool in executing soft power. This is type of action is now no longer limited to Russia, but comparatively less powerful influential Georgia has become a willing participant in this new “passport geopolitics”. Nor is it exclusively in direct connection to using the military defence of nationals living abroad as a pretext for military intervention, as Saakashvili’s stated logic has been to create a more favourable business environment. In order for this more easily-acquired Georgian citizenship by foreigners to be fully effective, however, the Georgian government must provide real and concrete benefits to citizenship aside from ostensible business or economic gains.

Unlike the residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, individual resident expats in Georgia don’t have a collective grievance against anyone and do not consider themselves to be in need of protection. Businesspeople or other expats in Georgia can take or leave the offer of citizenship as a matter of their own individual choice. Even if expats choose to obtain Georgian citizenship, this will likely be for reasons of economic or personal convenience, and does not imply any real loyalty to the Georgian state. Although the official Georgian reason for its more liberal passport regime is to make the country more favourable to foreign businesspeople, according to some Russian media sources, those resident foreigners who want citizenship mostly comprise citizens of Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as refugees from Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East. Georgia Times security correspondent Beso Aladashvili has stated that the move amounts to little more than a PR stunt.

Despite these assertions, Georgia does indeed have very strong and healthy economic ties with the West, and it may be in Georgia’s best interest to allow influential Western businesspeople to acquire Georgian nationality. Georgia has undergone economic reforms which have made the country more conducive to foreign investment since 2003. According to the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, among the top foreign investors in Georgia are Cyprus, the Netherlands and the UK, all of which are members of the European Union and NATO. Overall, the rate of EU foreign direct investment in Georgia rose 7.2 per cent from 2008 to 2011.

The number of business activities requiring licenses has been reduced by 84 per cent and overall the red tape for doing business in the country has been significantly lowered. Georgia’s president-elect Giorgi Margvelashvili has stated he intends his country to sign an Association Agreement with the EU in September 2014. If Western expatriate businesspeople do decide to obtain Georgian citizenship in large numbers, then it may very well help keep Georgia within the West’s economic fold. This cannot be insignificant as neighbouring Armenia draws closer to the Eurasian economic fold.

Political risk

As the acquisition of Georgian nationality by resident expatriate businesspeople will probably be based more on the economic benefits rather than political loyalty, however, this will not necessarily guarantee the intended effects. If the amount of political risk for some foreign businesses or industries in Georgia becomes too high, having Georgian nationality will not necessarily stem capital flight, especially if business executives can safely transfer their assets back to their home country or to a different, more stable and productive area altogether. Saakashvili must realise this, and as such his actions, while probably not a mere “PR stunt”, are indeed a calculated political move intended to increase Georgia’s soft power influence and appeal to strengthen its position against Russia.

All of this seems to indicate a new tendency toward the “geopoliticisation” of citizenship in Russia’s post-Soviet periphery, or at least in Georgia, which has declared it wishes to be an active player. Whereas the EU has created a single citizenship for its citizens, Russia and now Georgia have begun offering their respective citizenships in order to increase their influence abroad. Granting Georgian nationality to their ethnic cousins in Turkey will no doubt increase Georgia’s appeal among that sector of the population, and, depending on the results of President Saakashvili’s offer, may have much of the same effect for Western business interests. It may also set a precedent for other areas in the periphery, especially in places like Central Asia. Acquiring nationality for reasons of convenience or personal benefit, however, can never supplant a tried and true loyalty to the state or other political unit.

Tony Rinna is a contributing geopolitical analyst at the US-based Center for World Conflict and Peace. His areas of focus include Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

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