d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation of citizens, but de facto authorities and Russian occupying forces limited this freedom in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In-country Movement: There were substantial impediments to freedom of internal movement due to a lack of access to the Russian-occupied regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The majority of the approximately 300,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Abkhazia and South Ossetia wished to return to their areas of origin but lacked adequate security provisions and political, human, economic, and movement rights absent a political resolution to the conflicts.
Foreigners were restricted from moving in and out of Russian-occupied South Ossetia but could access Russian-occupied Abkhazia with approval from the de facto authorities. There were reports in 2018 that citizens of Commonwealth of Independent States countries were prohibited from entering Abkhazia except from Russia, which violated Georgian law. These citizens, however, were at times able to enter from Tbilisi-administered territory (TAT) if they were staff members of international organizations or if there was a request from an international organization such as the United Nations. Crossing permits issued by de facto South Ossetian authorities were the only document that allowed movement across the South Ossetia ABL to or from TAT.
Residents of Abkhazia who had Georgian citizenship could not use their Georgian passports to cross the Abkhazia ABL to or from TAT. In August 2018 de facto authorities declared older Soviet-era passports, used by thousands of ethnic Georgians living in Abkhazia, to be no longer valid for crossing, threatening the livelihood of many residents. De facto authorities then blocked some ethnic Georgians who had used Soviet-era passports to cross into TAT from returning to Abkhazia, providing access only on an ad hoc basis. De facto authorities claimed that residents without valid crossing documents would be allowed to apply for residence permits (reserved for “foreign” residents) that would enable them to cross but would strip them of voting, property, and other rights. During the year only holders of new Abkhaz “passports,” permanent residence permits, and temporary identification documents known as Form No. 9 were allowed to cross. Form No. 9 identification was given to any resident who applied for a residence permit and was valid until that person received the permit or for six months maximum. There were still some residents of Abkhazia without valid documentation.
Georgian passport holders not resident in Abkhazia could cross a checkpoint if they possessed invitation letters cleared by the de facto state security services allowing them to enter Abkhazia. The latter did not consistently provide permission to cross and limited movement to specific areas.
The law prohibits entry into and exit from the breakaway regions through the territory of neighboring states (i.e., Russia).
Russia and de facto Abkhaz authorities limited international organizations’ ability to operate in Abkhazia. Russia and de facto South Ossetian authorities limited international organizations, including humanitarian organizations, access to South Ossetia. The cochairs of the Geneva International Discussions (GID)–representing the United Nations, the OSCE, and the EU special representative for the South Caucasus and the crisis in Georgia–visited South Ossetia and Abkhazia approximately quarterly prior to most rounds of the GID. The ICRC office in Tskhinvali was the only international organization representation in South Ossetia.
De facto authorities and Russian forces in the Russian-occupied territories also restricted the movement of the local population across the ABL. Although they showed some flexibility for travel for medical care, pension services, religious services, and education, in several instances during the year, de facto authorities hindered access to medical care in TAT for residents in the occupied territories. In October after being prevented from crossing the ABL for medical care in TAT, Margo Martiashvili, a resident of Akhalgori in Russian-occupied South Ossetia, died following a stroke. In November an elderly woman fell into a well in occupied South Ossetia and was transferred to a hospital in Tskhinvali. Although her relatives demanded her transfer to a hospital in Tbilisi, as of December authorities had not allowed her to travel and she remained in the occupied territory. In December de facto authorities allowed a resident of occupied South Ossetia to cross the ABL at the closed Akhalgori crossing point for medical treatment after previously denying permission to cross.
Villagers who approached the ABL or crossings risked detention by Russian Federation “border guards.” Russian border guards along the ABL with Abkhazia typically enforced the boundary-crossing rules imposed by de facto authorities through detentions and fines. Along the South Ossetia ABL, Russian border guards frequently transferred individuals to de facto authorities. The SSSG reported that detentions by de facto authorities typically lasted two to three days until the detainee paid “fines” set by the de facto “court,” although some sentences for “violations of the state border” carried considerably longer terms.
As of December 1, the EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) was aware of 11 individuals detained along the ABL with Abkhazia and 44 detained along the line with South Ossetia. There were credible reports based on local sources that on several occasions, de facto South Ossetian or Russian “border guards” crossed into TAT to detain an individual. There were also reports of arbitrary arrests of ethnic Georgians by de facto authorities, particularly in the Tskhinvali and Gali regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, respectively. Most often, the arrested individuals were accused of violating the “state border.” According to EUMM, many detainees were obliged to sign documents in Russian that they did not understand.
De facto authorities continued to expand fencing and other physical barriers along the ABL between TAT and South Ossetia. This expansion of the Russian “borderization” policy further restricted movement, creating physical barriers and obstructing access to agricultural land, water supplies, and cemeteries. In August borderization activity along the ABL with Russian-occupied South Ossetia at Gugutiantkari village saw newly erected fencing cut residents’ access to the village’s irrigation infrastructure, although they still received water from the system. Several residents also lost access to their property. According to a July Amnesty International report, as of late 2018 at least 34 villages near the South Ossetian ABL had been divided by fences separating residents from critical infrastructure (farms, pasture, irrigation, cemeteries, etc.).
In 2017 Abkhaz de facto authorities closed two crossing points across the ABL, leaving crossing points open only at the Enguri Bridge and Saberio-Pakhulani. In January de facto Abkhaz authorities closed the Enguri Bridge, claiming this was a preventative measure to avoid the spread of the H1N1 virus. On February 5, the checkpoint reopened. On June 27, de facto Abkhaz authorities temporarily closed the ABL in response to the mass protests in downtown Tbilisi, allowing only young children, women, pensioners, and individuals with medical issues to cross the checkpoint. On October 2, the crossing was reopened. As access to TAT became more restricted and visits to family and friends living across the ABL much more difficult to arrange, the closure of crossing points further impoverished and isolated the population in lower Gali and contributed to a growing sense of isolation. The closure also prevented children from attending classes in their native Georgian language across the ABL. The June closure of the ABL affected students who had to take national university entrance exams administered in government areas. According to the Abkhaz government in exile, a group of students attempted to bypass the checkpoint and cross the ABL. One was seriously injured attempting to climb over barbed wire.
In September de facto South Ossetian authorities closed all but one checkpoint along the South Ossetia ABL, claiming it was necessary for “national security.” The cochairs of the Geneva international discussions and other international actors expressed concern that prolonged crossing closures would undermine livelihoods and prevent local residents from getting the food, supplies, and medicine they needed. As of October the crossing points remained closed.