Georgia is being singled out as the only CIS member country whose citizens will no longer qualify for visa-free travel to and residence in Russia. The Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry confirmed on November 10 its decision to impose unilateral travel and residency visa requirements on Georgian citizens. The discriminatory treatment is scheduled to go into effect on December 5. It will exacerbate Georgia’s economic difficulties by restricting Georgian citizens’ opportunities to trade and work in Russia. Hundreds of thousands of Georgians depend on income earned in Russia through long-term employment there and the shuttle trade. With Georgia’s economy barely afloat, curbs on remittances from Russia could have a devastating effect.
President Vladimir Putin had urged this move while still prime minister of Russia. Exactly one year ago, in a memorable appearance on television as presidential heir-apparent, Putin browbeat General Konstantin Totsky, the commander of Russia’s border troops, into “confirming” that Georgia was permitting Chechen and “international terrorist” operations on Georgian territory. That became the theme of a yearlong propaganda campaign, accompanied by demands to introduce visa requirements, allegedly to curb the rebels’ cross-border movements. The demand made no logical sense because hardly any of those Chechens would cross the border at the Russian checkpoints, which is where the visa requirements would be introduced and, presumably, enforced. Visa requirements are irrelevant in the wild mountainous areas in which Moscow professed to see cross-border rebel movements. Ultimately the accusations were discredited by lack of evidence and were in fact disproved after the Organization for Security and Europe had deployed its observer group on the Georgian side of the Georgian-Russian border’s Chechen sector.
In the background to its campaign, Moscow has quietly been telling Tbilisi that the visa measures can be dropped if Russian troops are permitted to use Georgian territory as a base for attacks on Chechens. Tbilisi has steadfastly refused such permission because it wants Russian forces to withdraw from Georgia, not pour into the country. Beyond that, Tbilisi is concerned–as President Eduard Shevardnadze reaffirmed this week in an address to the country–that a Russian military operation out of Georgia could drag the country into the war and spark Chechen-Georgian enmity for generations to come.
Moscow is now attempting to use the visa threat as a bargaining chip in negotiations on the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia. The suggestion is that Russia would impose the visa measures–severely penalizing Georgia economically–if Tbilisi insists on an early and complete withdrawal of the Russian troops from the country. That explains why Georgia is being singled out for such treatment from among the eleven member countries of the CIS.
In August of this year, Russia abandoned the 1994 CIS multilateral agreements on visa-free travel and residency, and began negotiating similar arrangements on a bilateral basis with all the CIS member countries, except Georgia (see the Monitor, September 1, 5). The Georgians, for their part, insisted retaining existing visa-free arrangements in any new bilateral treaty with Russia. They also proved unwilling to buy concessions on the visa issue through concessions regarding Russian military bases and troops.
The Russian side announced its final decision on Georgia on November 10 and 15, following a last round of negotiating in Moscow. In those talks, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry sought Georgian consent to privileged Russian treatment of residents of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia, who underwrites the de facto secession of those regions, is offering to exempt their residents from the Russian visa requirements to be imposed on Georgians. The favor would also extend to Armenian citizens in Abkhazia, where an estimated 70,000 ethnic Armenians reside alongside the estimated 90,000 Abkhaz in the wake of the “cleansing” of some 200,000 Georgians. The exemption is designed to enable Abkhazia and South Ossetia to earn income from trade with and remittances from Russia while hurting the Georgian citizens’ and Georgian government’s economic interests.
The final, futile negotiating round in Moscow ended with the Russian government’s threat to grant those exemptions unilaterally to the Abkhaz and the South Ossetians as of December 5. Such a move would qualify under international law as a breach of Georgia’s sovereignty.
In Abkhazia, meanwhile, the secessionist troops held field exercises last week using Russian-supplied armor and artillery. The troops moved the equipment in the “safe” areas from which heavy armaments are banned under the 1994 armistice convention. Russian “peacekeeping” troops tolerated those exercises in violation of their own mandate. The Abkhaz “defense ministry,” moreover, took the unprecedented step of banning the United Nations Mission of Observers in Georgia (UNOMIG, a largely symbolic group) from conducting routine inspections of the security zone by car and helicopter.
In South Ossetia, the authorities received a congratulatory message from Russia’s Duma on the tenth anniversary of the region’s secession from Georgia. Boris Pastukhov, chairman of the Duma’s CIS Affairs Committee, signed the message. Pastukhov, Yevgeny Primakov’s right-hand man, was directly responsible for the Russian government’s handling of these conflicts as deputy minister and first deputy minister of foreign affairs during most of the 1990s. His position as Duma committee chairman is closely coordinated with Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry (Prime-News, Kavkasia-Press, November 10-15; Tbilisi Radio, November 13-14; Itar-Tass, RIA, November 10, 15; see the Monitor, November 12, 1999, September 1, 5, October 24, 2000; Fortnight in Review, November 19, 1999, November 3, 2000).
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