Georgia’s Public Defender Ucha Nanuashvili released on February 9 a special report, where he identified a number of “problematic issues” in the law on occupied territories and called on the Government of Georgia to revise it.
Georgia adopted the law on occupied territories following the 2008 war with Russia, imposing various restrictions on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are to remain in place until Tbilisi’s jurisdiction is restored.
The report focuses on these restrictions and lists recommendations on them.
Entry into the Territories
The Public Defender said in his report that the rule of entry into Abkhazia and South Ossetia needs to be “decriminalized.”
According to this law, entry into breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia for foreign citizens from the areas other than Georgian-controlled territories is subject to criminal punishment. Violation of this rule carries either financial penalty or a jail term from two to four years, according to the law.
The document, however, also lists those “special cases” in which entry into the breakaway regions will not be regarded as illegal. It says that “a special permit” on entry into the breakaway regions can be issued, if travel “serves Georgia’s state interests; peaceful resolution of the conflict; de-occupation or humanitarian purposes.”
Since 2009 criminal punishment for violation of this rule applied to total of 395 foreign citizens, 51 of which were imprisoned and others fined, according to the report. Nanuashvili also said, citing the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body for legal affairs, that a large part of those detained were foreign sailors.
Nanuashvili added that the lack of information on entry procedures is often the reason for border violations. He also pointed out that that the application form and the list of required documents are available neither on the Foreign Ministry website, nor on the website of the State Security Service, which issues the permits.
Based on the State Security Service, since August 2015 only two entrance permits have been issued by the agency, to a total of 10 persons.
In 2013 the Government of Georgia proposed to partially decriminalize the entry into the two regions, which was welcomed by the Venice Commission. But the bill has been pending since then.
In autumn 2016, the Parliament of Georgia resumed consideration of this bill. According to the government-proposed amendments to the law on occupied territories, criminal code and administrative code, in case of violation of this rule for the first time a person will be subject to administrative punishment, involving a GEL 400 fine; but in case of repeat violation by the same person, criminal prosecution shall apply.
The Public Defender considers that the entry into the two regions should be limited to administrative punishment only. He also supports the government’s bill allowing the issuance of special permits after entering the territories and proposes to relax restrictions for international organizations and their representatives.
Nanuashvili added that a force majeure clause needs to be added to the law, allowing the entry in unforeseen circumstances.
According to the law on occupied territories, economic activities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia without prior authorization from the Georgian authorities represent violation of Georgia’s legislation, including of the law on occupied territories.
Ucha Nanuashvili emphasized that although the law allows foreign organizations and individuals to carry out economic activities in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the number of activities, for which the Government of Georgia has issued its consent, is relatively small.
The Public Defender reported that, in 2014-2016, the Office of State Minister for Reconciliation issued only seven permits for conducting economic activities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while in 2008-2013 years, following the Russia-Georgia war, the Office issued 21 consents, most of them concerning the operation of Enguri hydroelectric power plant. This has a minimal effect on the improvement of social and economic opportunities of locals, Nanuashvili believes.
The Public Defender also pointed out that people living in the two areas are not able to enjoy the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), an economic deal between Georgia and the European Union signed in June 2014, which extends the benefits of closer economic integration to the communities divided by conflict.
“It will be impossible to meet these commitments, if Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain closed for both Georgian and international communities, and if [the government fails] to relax restrictions on the conducting economic activities [in the two regions] and to strengthen economic and social connections,” the report outlined.
For that purpose, the Public Defender recommends “to develop stimulating legal and logistical instruments, including different tax regime, and to allocate financial resources to enable local individual entrepreneurs and micro and small businesses in the occupied territories to develop economic and trade relations with businesses and entrepreneurs operating across the dividing line for carrying out joint economic activities.”
He also proposed to relax restrictions for medical and educational organizations operating in the regions.
Documents Issued by De Facto Authorities
The Public Defender believes that the article declaring documents issued in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as illegal needs to be revised.
Nanuashvili points out that the residents of the two regions born in 1990s possess only those documents that are issued by the de facto authorities, which creates difficulties for them in using certain services on the territory controlled by Tbilisi, including the establishment of Georgian citizenship.
Therefore, the Public Defender believes that the government should work out an effective mechanism, enabling the residents of the occupied territories to obtain the Georgian citizenship IDs and legally valid documents “in a relatively simple way.”
Nanuashvili also suggests recognizing the de facto documents, if they help in establishing the Georgian citizenship.