The Embassy of the United States in Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia, has announced that it is ready to issue US visas to Russian citizens, if they apply to the embassy with such a request (News.am, August 26). The statement by the US diplomatic mission and its potential implications were tracked with great interest in Georgia.
Although small, Georgia considers itself to be an active participant in the big diplomatic “game” between Washington and Moscow. Earlier this summer, Russia reduced the number of personnel allowed to work in US diplomatic missions by 60 percent. In response, Washington recently closed several Russian diplomatic facilities in the United States (see EDM, September 5) and suspended indefinitely the issuance of non-immigrant visas at consulates outside of Moscow. Washington stated that the waiting period for an interview for a US visa in Russia, which used to be several weeks, may now increase to several months. Meanwhile, in Georgia, the citizens of this country can still expect to obtain a US visa in just 7–8 days. This relative “comfort” when it comes to obtaining a visa in Tbilisi, as compared to in Russia, raised concerns among some Georgians, who predicted that as a result thousands of Russian citizens might try to travel to Georgia to obtain an American visa (see below).
Finally, according to some experts (see below), if residents of the North Caucasus become more likely to travel to Tbilisi rather than to Moscow to obtain a US visa, this could irritate the Russian leadership. The North Caucasus is still considered a “problem region” of the Russian Federation from Moscow’s point of view. And as Russia continues to struggle with various militant or extremist forces in the region, it demands unconditional respect from its neighbors for Moscow’s sovereignty there.
According to an employee of the US embassy’s public relations department, Anita Tvauri, the American diplomatic mission in Tbilisi has previously considered visa applications from citizens of Russia and other countries. Therefore, there will be no systemic changes in the work of the embassy and consulate in Georgia. She conceded, however, that the number of applications from Russian citizens could increase, while the US embassy will still only be able to issue a certain number of visas in a month. A quota remains in place for Georgian and foreign citizens, and the US consulate cannot satisfy all comers. Nonetheless, she stated that priority will continue to be given to visa applications submitted by Georgian citizens. Reviewing documents from Russian citizens will be regarded by the US embassy in Tbilisi as a “secondary task” (Author’s interview, September 4).
The former rector of the Georgian Diplomatic Academy, Iosif Tsintsadze, told this author last month (August 25) that if thousands of Russian citizens living in the southern regions of Russia really try to come to Georgia to obtain a visa, “this will be a misfortune for Georgians wishing to obtain a visa at the US embassy.” He added, “The US State Department is unlikely to increase the number of American diplomats in Georgia in order to respond to everyone.” In his opinion, the waiting time for an interview at the US Embassy could increase from the current 7–8 days to several months.
However, Tsintsadze does not view such a scenario as particularly probable: “It is unlikely, that the US embassy in Georgia will start issuing visas to Russians on a massive scale. This is just a ‘diplomatic game’ between the United States and Russia. In this way, Americans want to emphasize that Moscow has harmed its citizens by reducing the number American diplomats, while the United States, on the contrary, cares about Russians,” Tsintsadze asserted (Author’s interview, August 25).
In an August 29 interview with this author, Irakli Menagarishvili, Georgia’s foreign minister from 1995 to 2003, predicted that Russians will come to Georgia with pleasure to obtain a US visa. This is particularly the case because several years ago, the Georgian authorities abolished the country’s visa regime for Russian citizens. Indeed, residents of Stavropol Krai, Krasnodar Krai and the republics of the North Caucasus are able to make the trip to Tbilisi via the “Georgian Military Road” in just a few hours.
But Menagarishvili sees a more serious danger in this process than simply a lengthening of queues in front of the US embassy in Tbilisi: “We do not have exact figures of how many residents from the North Caucasus came to Georgia for an American visa before.” The number of applicants from Chechnya and other “problem regions of Russia” is classified. “But it is unlikely that this number was large, because that would have been noticeable,” the former Georgian foreign minister assured this author (Author’s interview, August 29).
At the same time, he warned that it is possible Moscow will raise alarms over residents of the North Caucasus traveling to Georgia for US visas, but such suspicions will be devoid of meaning, Menagarishvili stressed. “Neither Georgia, nor the US is interested in the North Caucasus becoming destabilized. And the ‘visa issue’ cannot cause undesirable processes for Russia in this region,” he concluded.
In the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia, the author was told, on September 5, that they do not have any information about how actively the citizens of Russia are reacting to the proposal of the US embassy in Tbilisi. Every day, thousands of Russians travel to Georgia by car via the Georgian Military Road or arrive at the Tbilisi airport. It is not yet possible to determine, however, how many of them are now coming to Georgia to vacation as tourists, and how many wish to obtain an American visa or have decided to combine both goals in the same trip.
Yet, theoretically, the opportunity to easily obtain a US visa in a neighboring country is likely to cause some increase in the flow of visitors from Russia. They can fill out their application electronically, be interviewed at the US consulate in the Georgian capital, and then return to Russia and receive their passport in the mail. Still, considering that only a relatively small staff of diplomats works in the US embassy in Georgia, the possibility of obtaining US visas in Tbilisi will only slightly ease the lengthy waiting periods of Russians who wish to travel to the United States.