Georgia's dancers perform during celebrations for the signing of an association agreement with the EU in Tbilisi on June 27, 2014
The full abolition of visa requirements between Georgia and the European Union (EU) is an important event in the Caucasus region. One of the consequences of this event can be related to the role of Russia in the conflict of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and can even change the peace process in this tumultuous region. Most residents of these regions have Russian passports, but given this event and the increased credit of the Georgian passport and a growing tourism industry, it is not far-fetched to see the increased convergence among the residents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and Georgia’s central government, and in the medium term, we can witness the formation of a different mechanism to resolve the conflict, and also witness the role of Russia in the South Caucasus. The plan for the abolition of visas was introduced in the EU approximately since 2013, and one of the main reasons for that can be to give political and social incentives to governments cooperating with the EU against Russia. It should be also noted that a special place has been given to Georgia in the issue of energy transfer to the EU in the coming years.
The Abolition of Visas and Its Effects
The EU parliament approved that citizens of Georgia can travel without a Schengen visa to the 26 member states since this spring, and can stay (without a work permit) for 3 months in any member state. The EU parliament meeting in Strasbourg to vote on this issue had been postponed several times since 2013, but in the end, this decision was adopted on Thursday, February 2 by a majority of the votes (553 votes). At the time of voting, Sebastian Kurz, the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said in a joint press conference with Georgian Foreign Minister that “the crisis in Ukraine and Georgia should be resolved as best as possible through diplomatic means, and the freedom of citizens of the two states to enter the EU can prove helpful in this regard”.
Immediately after this vote in the EU parliament, Prime Minister of Georgia called this day an important historic day for the state. President Giorgi Margvelashvili congratulated the Georgian citizens, and stated that “our Abkhaz and Ossetian compatriots will join us in enjoying the benefits offered by close relations with Europe.” Pointing to the two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia dominated by Russia, he said that the people of these two territories could receive Georgian passport, and this was a way to reunite Georgia.
Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili also said in a video message that “many people inside and outside of the state laughed at me on the day we sang the anthem of the European Union in front of the parliament of Georgia after the Rose Revolution, and for the first time, we raised the EU flag in the Caucasus. I firmly believe that Georgia will soon join the EU”.
With the final approval of the project, Georgian biometric passport holders can freely travel to Schengen member states for 90 days every 180 days. The project is available for nine-month trial period, and if the Georgian citizens apply for asylum or stay more than 90 days, so that there is the increased risk for the public policy or the internal security of the EU, Georgia will be excluded from this project.
In a project called the convergence of the EU’s eastern neighbors with this Union, the EU plans to abolish visas for citizens of Belarus, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Moldova and Georgia, but before this decision was made, only Moldova had observed the EU standards, and Schengen visas had been abolished for her nationals. Ukraine and Georgia may also be included in the list of states granted the visa-free travel to the EU, but the states of Belarus, Azerbaijan and Armenia have remained silent in this regard.
Geopolitical Importance of Georgia for the West
Georgia as a state located in the South Caucasus, due to her good geographical, strategic and geopolitical position and her proximity to the Black Sea region, can create a great situation for the activities of the EU and NATO, since she acts as a link connecting the Central Asia and the Caucasus region to the EU or the East Corridor to the West. This state, enjoying natural resources, geographical position and being located in the basin of the Caspian Sea, has great potential to be an important transit route for energy and goods. Therefore, for the Euro-Atlantic community, she is a link connecting the West to Central Asia, and strategically, she is the place for the EU and NATO to expand to the East.
Since the very beginning of her independence in 1992, Georgia has showed her desire to enter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Council of Europe, so she immediately established her diplomatic and official relations with NATO in 1994, introduced her ambassador to NATO to expand her relations with this organization, and held joint military exercises with NATO forces in the port of Poti in 2001. In the January 2008 elections of Georgia, Saakashvili said his government was looking for two goals: joining the Euro-Atlantic community and restoring the territorial integrity of Georgia.
However, one of the reasons for this state’s delay in joining NATO and the EU is again related to her geographical and geopolitical position. Locating on Russia’s southern border and having two disputed areas can be considered as the main barriers facing Georgia to join NATO. However, if Georgia is granted visa-free travel to the EU, this will be one of the incentives that the Euro-Atlantic community has awarded Georgia for her government’s behavior, and this is a special privilege for the current ruling party, Georgian Dream Party led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, and it is also assessed as the EU’s boast against Russia.
Georgia’s West-oriented Approach
The top priority of Tbilisi in the foreign policy is to get closer to the West and have the comprehensive cooperation and integration with the Euro-Atlantic community in the regional and international interactions and exchanges. The EU parliament and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are two structures and organizations that Georgia has so far joined, and has tried to act as an active member within these structures.
Of course, this membership is not only the result of the efforts of Tbilisi, but this is also one of the EU’s main strategies in the development of the continent. Georgia’s efforts to create warm and friendly relations with the US tend to be also assessed in line with turning toward the West policy, and the Georgian leaders are trying to have very good and close relations with Washington both in security- political and in the economic- cultural fields. Other involved factors that this state selected a West-oriented approach can be the specific concerns of Georgia for providing her territorial integrity, and applying national sovereignty all over her state against Russia who has a significant role in determining Georgia’s foreign policy orientation. On this issue, Russia’s support for separatists played a great role in Georgia’s West-oriented approach, and pushed this state to focus her security approaches more on the issue of developing relations with the West. What is clear about the Westernization of Georgia is that since she integrated with the Euro-Atlantic community, and tried to join NATO and the EU, she paid no attention to the principle of being a neighbor to Russia, and this created domestic disputes and tensions in Georgia which will affect her long-term stability, although the new government has sought to solve this geopolitical conflict.
The Effect of Russia- Georgia Relations on the Future Developments
After Rose Revolution government came to power in Georgia, Russia’s role gradually faded in this state, and Russia almost had no political role in Georgia in 2008. Ossetia and Abkhazia conflict might have helped Russia show off against the Georgian young statesmen, and boast about her historical power in the region. Russia’s entry into the war between Georgia and South Ossetia is in fact the Russian plan to stabilize her own long-term interests in the region. As the government of Georgia’s former President, Mikheil Saakashvili, left the political scene, Giorgi Margvelashvili’s government announced that the normalization of relations with Russia is one of its foreign policy goals.
Talks between special representatives of Russia and Georgia have begun since 14 December 2012. Experts say Georgia has no choice but to compromise with Russia. On the one hand, Georgia, like other former Soviet republics, is heavily dependent on Russia economically.
On the other hand, citizens of the CIS states, especially citizens of Georgia, have achieved significant revenues by visiting Russia, and have met their own and their families’ needs, and have transferred the surplus revenues to Georgia. According to the latest statistics, one and a half million Georgian nationals are working in Russia.
Georgia is also important for Russia for another reason, and that is because Georgia is located in the path of energy transfer from Central Asia and the Caspian Sea to Europe - excluding Russia and Iran. As a result of this, Russia controls the security of Georgia, and can play with it every time the Russian role is ignored by Georgia in supplying the European energy.
In an exclusive interview with the Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, Nino Burjanadze has recently stated: I have met many senior officials of Russia in recent years, and have seen their real willingness to resolve the existing problems between the two states. Georgia may be willing to improve her relations with Moscow, but she is not courage enough to sit at the negotiating table with Russia.
This Georgian politician believes that the Georgian authorities are constantly worried to be labeled as pro-Russians. It is important for them how Western states think about them, and this is why the process of improving relations between Russia and Georgia advances very slowly. Of course, it takes much time and effort to improve relations between the two states.
Ms. Burjanadze added that Moscow authorities must be ensured that no danger from Georgia threatens Russia, for example, on the issue of the close cooperation between Georgia and NATO, and the officials in Tbilisi also want to completely feel Russia’s support for Georgia. In case such a mutual trust is established, there will be no longer any problem for the two states to improve their relations.
However, it seems that the political climate in Georgia is ready to improve relations with Russia. Georgians need security, this security does not only depends on the West, and the Georgian politicians have come to the conclusion that the economic and social development must be coupled with political and security stability that require calm in relations with Moscow as well. However, with closer ties to the West by abolishing the visa requirements, Georgia will advance with more confidence in her talks with Russia and the parties involved in the conflict, and will have greater chances of success.
Hamed Kazemzadeh, PhD in Caucasus and Central Asian studies at University of Tehran, is the senior scholar on ‘National Identity in the North Caucasus’ at the Center for East European Studies at the University of Warsaw.
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