On ‘neutral documents’

Last week, Georgian Parliament passed a package of legal amendments to pave the way for the implementation of the ‘neutral ID and travel documents’ idea first raised in the July 2010 Action Plan for Engagement. There has been a lot of work done on these documents, with quite a lot of international advice and assistance, but how a document issued by the Georgian authorities is possibly going to be perceived as ‘neutral’ by the inhabitants of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is still a bit of a mystery to me.

When my colleagues and I were in Brussels earlier this month, talking to EU officials, we were also told that the Georgian government was committed to making this a really neutral document. What would make it so neutral, I didn’t fully understand. It won’t carry any name or symbols relating to the Georgian state (or, according to some reports, it will even have elements of these) or confer Georgian citizenship onto its bearers – this all seems pretty obvious (otherwise there would be no reason at all to call the document ‘neutral’). But what will be written in the place of the three-letter country code we all have in our passports? GEO? ABK/SOS? something else? (I like the SOS code… but that’s being ironic). Certainly there will be something relating to Georgia in the documents, as it is Georgia that has taken responsibility for readmission of persons carrying this document and overstaying their visa in third countries. If we just think of the possibility of such a thing happening, it not only means Georgia considers the bearer of this document as its citizen (which it does, and in a way quite understandably so), but also that this person would be ‘repatriated’ to Tbilisi – where he/she didn’t leave from or probably ever wanted to go to, and certainly wouldn’t feel home or repatriated…

The idea of a neutral travel document is not new: it has been used in Kosovo, where UNMIK issued its own travel documents from 2000 to 2008 (when Kosovo started issuing its own passports). And there was talk, back then, of a similar solution (i.e. some kind of UN or other neutral authority issued document) for Abkhazia – which was rejected by the Georgian authorities. And so this stayed the only travel document the UN has ever been issuing (except its own laissez-passer), and Abkhaz analysts and politicians have been commenting the current Georgian initiative is too late and too little and not demanded by anyone in their society. They have been asking, too: why would anyone in Abkhazia or South Ossetia want to take a travel document from a state most people living there feel at the moment they’d rather not have anything to do with, whereas most people already have double documents: their own passports, on which they can only travel to Russia (handy), Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru (not very relevant to most people), and Russian passports which are used for travel to other countries. Adding another travel document does not, even from a purely pragmatic point of view, make much sense for most of the people this initiative is targeting.

Besides, the new travel document is likely to face similar problems to the UNMIK travel document or the also existing world passport (issued mainly to refugees by an NGO, and not carrying any signs of state affiliation): because of its non-state, non-passport status, it is likely that quite a number of states will not recognise it as a valid travel document – the world passport, for example, does not grant access to EU countries, the US or Russia. And this is exactly the only thing that could make possession of such a document pragmatically worthwhile for people living in Abkhazia or South Ossetia in the current context: wide acceptance of the document (a part from the EU and US it would need at least Turkey to accept it, too) and ease of obtaining visas for its holder. To me, it is still a large question mark if the Georgian state will manage to achieve this.

So far, what I like most about the whole project is the willingness of the Georgian authorities to de-criminalise access to Abkhazia and South Ossetia via Russia – for holders of the ‘neutral document’. Though the idea that people will notify Tbilisi in advance of any such border crossings sounds, again, more like powerless wishful thinking than like anything else. If the Georgian government genuinely wants to reach out to the people living in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, things need to be easy, attractive and without any hint of a wish to control…

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