On September 2, the parliament in Tbilisi approved the Law “On the Rules and Procedures for Georgian Citizens Exiting and Entering Georgia” (Matsne.gov.ge, September 4). This legislation is not related to the pandemic; rather, it addresses Georgia’s long-term relationship with the European Union and introduces new restrictions for Georgian citizens who want to visit EU countries. The Georgian authorities assert that the law was necessary to address an increase in the number of Georgian illegal immigrants and those deceptively seeking asylum in the EU. This is despite the fact that, according to Eurostat, the largest recorded decrease in asylum applications to Europe year on year (Q2 2019 to Q2 2020) came from citizens of Georgia (Ec.europa.eu, June 15).
For the past half year, Georgia has maintained restrictions on border crossings and flights. Like many other states around the world, in March Georgia closed its land borders as well as suspended regular transnational air traffic as a preventative measure to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus into the country. At least in part, these temporary restrictions contributed to the government’s relatively successful handling of the disease outbreak (see EDM, June 8), but they have also resulted in serious socio-economic, humanitarian and political predicaments. More than a million people from Georgia live outside the country, and many of them study or work in the EU. Those Georgian citizens who managed to return to their homeland during the pandemic now cannot return to the EU; and those who lost their jobs in Europe as a result of the economic downturn and now want to return home are barred from doing so.
In August, Georgia symbolically reopened air corridor links with five EU member states—France, Germany, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia (Ekho Kavkaza, August 19)—but the authorities kept in place restrictions on flights to and from all other global destinations. This seemingly arbitrary approach raised questions and criticism. Even the Greek ambassador to Tbilisi expressed bewilderment as to why France, where the situation with the pandemic is more difficult, was included on the list while Greece, which is within the so-called “green zone,” was not (Rustavi 2, August 19).
The Georgian government postponed the decision to resume all global flights several times, with the latest promise stating that the ban will expire on October 1—though some observers warn it could extend through next month as well (Ekho Kavkaza, August 19). The international travel restrictions have prompted allegations that the real reason for maintaining the bans is not the continued threat of COVID-19 but to keep the country shut and isolated in the run-up to the parliamentary elections scheduled for October 31. Georgia’s opposition claims the authorities want to restrict the arrival of foreign election observers as well as artificially reduce the number of Georgian opposition supporters stuck in Europe and other countries from being able to come home in time to cast their vote. The issue of opening the border and resuming flights has become a key campaign theme: the opposition promises to lift all travel bans if elected (Apsny.ge, September 7).
The new EU travel law adopted on September 2 has nothing to do with the elections or the pandemic. But it looks incongruent against the background of existing flight bans and, in some sense, curtails one of Georgia’s most important achievements of the past several years.
On March 28, 2017, Georgia entered a visa-free regime with the Schengen Area, thus permitting Georgian citizens the right to stay in the zone’s 26 (both EU and non-EU) European countries for 90 days without a visa (Mfa.gov.ge, accessed September 22). Among the most popular accomplishments of the sitting Georgian Dream government, visa-free travel came out of the Association Agreement between Georgia and the EU, which was signed on June 27, 2014. The free movement of Georgian citizens in the EU was then heralded as an important step toward European integration. According to Georgia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, over 600,000 Georgian citizens made more than a million visits to Schengen Europe in the first three years since the visa-free regime had come into force (Mfa.gov.ge, March 28).
The newly approved law on cross-border travel significantly restricts the entry of Georgian citizens to the EU, with Georgians leaving the country required to present additional documentation to Georgian border control prior to being allowed to leave. Heretofore, Georgians had to show these documents upon arrival within the Schengen Area; now they must show them before being allowed to exit their own country (Schengenvisainfo.com, September 3) Some local non-governmental organizations (NGO) have pointed out that—perhaps in violation of the constitution—this policy leaves it to the personal discretion of Georgian border checkpoint officers as to whether or not to release Georgian citizens to enter the EU (Netgazeti.ge, September 4).
Officials insist that the goal of the new legislation is to maintain the hard-fought visa-free regime with the EU since, if the number of Georgian illegal immigrants grows, it may prompt Brussels to suspend the free travel agreement with Tbilisi. However, Georgian civil rights NGOs have expressed fears that, in conditions of weak democratic institutions, the Georgian government may be tempted to exploit the new restrictions for political purposes (Netgazeti.ge, September 4).
Where do such fears originate from? Back in 2014, during a TV interview, the country’s informal leader and founder of Georgian Dream, Bidzina Ivanishvili, mused that when border restrictions came down following the collapse of the Soviet Union, this caused problems. “It was a great disaster for us that the borders were opened. Everyone goes abroad and sees how others live, and this deepened our disaster. We saw how we live and how others live. We became even more miserable when we saw how much better it is possible to live,” he mused (Tabula.ge, December 22, 2014). And this past summer, commenting on the risks of a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, the director general of the Infectious Diseases, AIDS and Clinical Immunology Research Center (under the Ministry of Health), accidentally used a term associated with totalitarianism: “the borders are closed by an iron curtain” (Interpressnews, July 6, 2020). Though it may have been an unfortunate slip of the tongue, it has provided additional ammunition for the opposition’s electoral campaign.
*An earlier version of this article included uncorroborated statistics on the numbers of Russian visitors to Georgia.