The Use of “Passportization” in Perpetuating Unrecognized Separatist States
For people living in separatist states, a Russian passport means freedom of movement. Image: REUTERS/Stringer
When the USSR collapsed, Moscow rushed to come up with a looser version of the Soviet Union in which former constituent republics could continue to work together but with greater autonomy. The fact that this was called the “Commonwealth of Independent States” (CIS) was supposed to underline the voluntary nature of the setup, creating the guise of an EU-style community. In reality, however, those countries which were determined to be genuinely independent, or to break away too far from Moscow’s orbit, found themselves suffering convulsions of separatism from minority groups seeking independence for their own Autonomous Oblast or ASSR. The main such cases were in Georgia (Abkhazia, South Ossetia), Azerbaijan (Nagorno Karabakh) and Moldova (Transdniestria). As if by magic, nationality groups who had been in a minority in the breakaway region, often managed to expel the majority of non-ethnic breathren: most glaringly in in the ethnic cleansing of Abkhazia. The background to each of these is significantly different and undoubtedly the separatist claims originally had a degree of historical resonance but what unites all of the four situations is that Moscow appears to have been very much behind the creation and/or survival of these breakaway entities as part of a divide-and-rule approach to punishing ex-Soviet states who refuse to tow the Kremlin’s line.
In the early 1990s, it was probably assumed that the CIS would eventually re-unite into a kind of ‘USSR Take 2.’ However, as this failed to materialize, the four breakaway republics settled into geopolitical limbo. They were de facto unable to function as part of the ‘mother’ state from which they’d broken away but not recognized by the world at large – meaning that the passports issued by the breakaway entities were not valid for international travel.
The answer to this conundrum was ‘passportization’ – a somewhat clumsy term for the issuance of the passport of one country to the citizens of another. In the case of self-declared Nagorno Karabakh, it was Yerevan who provided Armenian passports to Azerbaijani Armenians. In the other cases, Moscow offered Russian passports - a situation repeated post-2014 in the Donbas areas of partially occupied Ukraine.
So how has passportization worked, and how do the situations differ between the different entities?
South Ossetia & Abkhazia
Georgia's separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have populations of around 53,000 and 240,000, respectively, according to 2016 estimates. In the late 1980s, a separatist movement in South Ossetia favoured breaking away from Georgia and uniting with North Ossetia-Alania, a republic in the Russian Federation’s North Caucasus with which it shares a mountain border. In 1989, Soviet troops were dispatched, supposedly to keep the peace, but soon after Georgia declared its independence (1991), fierce fighting led to tens of thousands of ethnic Georgians being forced to evacuate their homes. Fighting in Abkhazia started later (1992), forming part of a broader civil war in post-independence Georgia. By the time a ceasefire was declared in 1994, more than 250,000 ethnic Georgians had fled Abkhazia, becoming internally displaced persons (IDPs). The region formally declared its independence in 1999.
The 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia further drove thousands of ethnic Georgians away from Abkhazia and South Ossetia into Tbilisi-controlled territories. As a result of the 2008 war, Moscow and a handful of other nations recognized the independence of both separatist regions. Russia installed a military base and has since used its presence here to pressure Tbilisi to reverse its pro-Western foreign policy.
South Ossetia and Abkhazia started issuing passports in 2006, but other than Russia, they are recognized by only Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru, and Syria. Already between 2002 and 2006, an estimated 90% of Abkhazians and South Ossetians had been issued with Russian passports, and both entities allow for dual citizenship with Russia (but nowhere else).
Until 2022 this ‘passportization’ remained a grey area in international relations, but generally, the Russian passports so issued were accepted for international travel. Since the Ukraine invasion, however, the EU has been rethinking this approach, linking the cases of Georgia’s and Ukraine’s occupied areas and banning the use of Russian passports issued in Sukhumi or Tskhinvali.
The Caspian Post has discussed the occupation and de-occupation of Karabakh in great detail elsewhere, so we won’t recapitulate things here. However, in the context of passportization, what makes the region different from other cases is that the former Soviet Autonomous Oblast of Nagorno Karabakh had no direct border with the Russian Federation. The same techniques of direct interference from Moscow were less viable here. Also, following the forced flight of the Azerbaijani population under Armenian military control, the entity which declared unrecognized independence was almost entirely ethnic Armenian. Armenian occupation of the surrounding seven regions made the entity de facto contiguous with Armenia. As a result, Yerevan, offered Armenian passports to the vast majority of the population.
With the 2020 Second Karabakh War, the area returned to Azerbaijani control, leaving residents of the former breakaway in a somewhat unusual situation. Eventually, they will be expected to apply for Azerbaijani passports like any other citizen. For now - while Russian peacekeepers remain and a final peace deal is being hammered out – most retain Armenian citizenship, and the (re-routed) Lachin Corridor allows free access to Armenia.
The self-declared ‘Pridnestrovskaia Moldavskaia Republic’ (aka Transdniestra or Transnistria) is – as the alternative name implies - the sliver of Moldova that lies ‘across the River Dniester.’ Moldova’s complex history and multiple ethnolinguistic groups meant that on independence in 1991, there was a strong initial push to join Romania, with whom much of the population has strong family and linguistic links. This was less the case in Transnistria, which was also home to the republic’s main industrial base – specifically the highly specialized steelworks at Rîbnița/Ribnitsa – along with the Soviet 14th Army base. The ready availability of this pro-Russian force and a significant Russian-speaking population meant that Transnistria’s breakaway happened with much less bloodshed than the Georgian equivalents. The entity is not recognized by any other country, but compared with other breakaway states, relations with Moldova are bearable enough to allow open borders between them. Meanwhile, 90% of Transnistria’s 469,000 population now have dual nationality. While this is mostly Russian, passportization is also common in the rest of Moldova, with large numbers of Moldovans also taking Romanian citizenship to allow access to the EU.
Emil Avdaliani is a professor at European University and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Georgian think-tank, Geocase.