Tbilisi

Abkhazia & South Ossetia

more than a year ago
The collapse of the Soviet Union flared up a number of centuries-old ethnic strives in the South Caucasus area. In Georgia, several violent conflicts between 1992 and 2008 led to the loss of Tbilisi’s control over the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, whose local authorities declared those territories “independent republics”. Around 300,000 people were uprooted from their homes and relocated to other parts of Georgia, where tens of thousands of them still reside in temporary settlements. Abkhazia and South Ossetia are recognized as independent states by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and several Pacific island-states, the rest of international community deeming them an integral part of Georgia.

Travel to both regions is at the moment strongly discouraged by most western governments, notably the UK Home Office and the US Department of State. One should bear in mind that consular assistance cannot be normally provided on the territory of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by officials of countries that do not recognize the “republics”, therefore any emergency cases (e.g. loss of passport, accident) will require to be dealt with independently by the traveller and may carry severe consequences. Despite the new Georgian government elected in October 2012 pledged to normalize the relations with its breakaway regions, as of March 2013 this has not brought about any change on the ground.

Abkhazia, enclosed between Russia, Georgia and the Black sea coastline was one of the top tourist destinations in the Soviet Union due to its fabulous nature (subtropical beaches, alpine lakes and gorges, mountain caves deepest on earth) and historical monuments (New Athos monastery, cities of Sukhumi and Gagra, ancient religious sites). All travellers should log on to Abkhaz Foreign Ministry website (http://mfaapsny.org/en/council/visa.php) for checking the latest immigration requirements. Most foreigners will need to fill out a downloadable electronic visa application form and forward it to the provided Abkhaz Consular Service e-mail address. Normally, a free-of-charge entry permit will be issued within 5 working days and e‑mailed back to the applicant for printout. From Georgia, Abkhazia can only be entered through the “Enguri” checkpoint on the administrative border, 10 kilometres north-west of Zugdidi and as of 2013 operated by the Russian military. The printout of the entry permit must be produced together with the passport upon checkpoint control. Within three days of arrival in Abkhazia, the traveller is required to visit the Sukhumi branch of SberBank of Abkhazia (not to be confused with the SberBank of Russia), pay the visa fee of 20 US dollars and proceed with the receipt to the office of Consular Service in Sukhumi to receive a visa. The visa will be handed to the traveller as a loose sheet of paper, not to be glued in the passport, as it will be collected upon departure checkpoint control, serving as an exit permit. From Russia, Abkhazia can be entered through the “Psou” checkpoint, whereas departing back to Russia will require the traveller to hold a Russian multi-entry visa. Note: entering Abkhazia through the “Psou” checkpoint is as of 2013 deemed a criminal offence under Georgian law, therefore visiting Abkhazia from Russia may result in the traveller not being subsequently admitted into Georgia or being prosecuted by Georgian authorities, as Russian border guards are likely to stamp the individual’s passport upon crossing “Psou”.
Compared to Georgia proper, Abkhazia is a considerably less travel-friendly environment. The level of security is low and especially in Sukhumi one should refrain from sightseeing after dark. The currency in use is the Russian ruble, ATMs may be expected not to work with foreign bank cards and foreign mobile phones/SIM cards might not be compatible with local cellular networks. At least a “survival” knowledge of Russian is a must. In general, travel to Abkhazia is not advisable especially to travellers without prior experience in travelling in Ukraine and Russia. The situation remains to be volatile and one should obtain a thorough update immediately before embarking on travel to Abkhazia.

South Ossetia, landlocked between Russia and Georgia, is currently off-limits to foreign visitors from the directions of both countries. Crossing the region’s administrative border from Georgia might result in individual’s arrest or direct physical danger on the part of local military groups. Travellers should exercise caution not to enter South Ossetia inadvertently while trekking in eastern Imereti and Racha-Lechkhumi or western Mtskheta-Mtianeti (west of Georgian Military Highway, particularly the Truso valley).
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