VISA REQUIREMENTS AIM TO FORCE GEORGIA BACK INTO RUSSIA’S ORBIT.

Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 227

The visa regulations which Russia slapped on Georgia–but not on the two secessionist regions of Georgia–as of December 5 are only the visible tip of Moscow’s policy iceberg. The move aims to exacerbate Georgia’s economic predicament, undermine Georgian citizenship and cement the secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia–unless Georgia yields to Moscow’s top policy priority: retaining Russian troops and bases in Georgia. By the same token, Moscow suggests that it would rescind the visa regulations if Tbilisi allows Russian troops to stay and perhaps more troops to be brought in.

Meanwhile, at the year-end meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) last week, Moscow used its veto power to block a resolution which would have expressed concern over Russia’s latest moves against Georgia. The Russian government wants Georgia to feel isolated before a crucial round of negotiations, scheduled for mid-December, concerning the Russian troops and bases in Georgia. With the OSCE reduced to institutional silence, the Kremlin would draw still more comfort from self-imposed silence on the part of the European Union and of the outgoing Clinton administration.

President Eduard Shevardnadze and Foreign Affairs Minister Irakly Menagarishvili have belatedly disclosed the fact that the Russian government offered to renounce the visa regulations if Georgia meets a set of conditions. Those, which have been stated repeatedly, include: (1) Georgian deference to “Russia’s interests” regarding the transportation of Caspian oil and gas–implying that Tbilisi should switch support from the American-backed Baku-Ceyhan (Turkey) and related projects to the Russian-backed northern route to Novorossiisk; (2) A “revision” of Georgia’s unqualified support for the EU-sponsored Eurasian transit corridor; (3) Georgian accession to the CIS Customs Union and the CIS Eurasian Economic Community; (4) Georgian “flexibility” in the negotiations over the four Russian military bases, which Moscow proposes to keep under a twenty-five-year treaty with Tbilisi; and (5) Georgian consent to the introduction of Russian army and/or border troops on the Georgian side of the Georgian-Russian border, opposite Chechnya and Ingushetia.

Shevardnadze, Menagarishvili and other Tbilisi officials have publicly ruled out compliance with such terms. Top presidential aide Petre Mamradze commented that Russian policymakers “cannot reconcile themselves to the independence of Georgia and some other former Soviet republics. They cannot imagine these countries having any other status than guberniya. There is the root of the problem.”

On board the government’s policy, nationalist and communist leaders in the Duma feel free to discuss, in undiplomatic ways, the motivations behind that policy and its intended impact on Georgia. According to the Duma Foreign Relations Committee’s Vice-Chairman Anatoly Chekhoev, “the imposition of visa requirements should cool the heads of Georgian policymakers. The measure will aggravate the people’s poverty, and that should in turn trigger mass protests…. Russia’s move”–Chekhoev went on–“has been called forth by Georgia’s effort to evict the Russian military bases and her rush toward NATO.” In a similar vein, the Zhirinovsky party’s first vice-chairman in the Duma, Aleksei Mitrofanov, applauded the government’s special treatment of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a further step toward their separation from Georgia.

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov in turn pointed to the heart of the matter: “Georgia’s state policy regarding the Russian military forces is what we are talking about here.” Criticizing Tbilisi’s refusal to grant Russian troops free passage for attacking Chechnya, Luzhkov by the same token endorsed the Russian government’s intention to rescind the visa requirements if Georgia changes that policy.

An estimated half a million Georgians live in Russia. Their remittances, valued at more than half a billion dollars, to families back home, are vital to Georgia’s economy. Many others earn a living from the small-scale shuttle trade, using the legal cross-border checkpoints. Any significant curbs on Georgians’ employment in and trade with Russia would exacerbate the country’s economic predicament. To avoid visa-related expenses–and even more onerous visa-related extortion by corrupt Russian authorities–many Georgians will consider giving up their citizenship and taking Russian citizenship. That situation will in turn generate pressures for the introduction of dual Georgian-Russian citizenship, undermining Georgian citizenship as such. In a broadcast to the country yesterday, Shevardnadze uncomfortably anticipated that prospect, only to rule out dual citizenship. He expressed hope that any Georgians who might feel constrained to adopt Russian citizenship would eventually revert to Georgia’s.

As part of these measures, the Russian government accepts the use of Soviet passports by the residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, who continue enjoying visa-free travel to Russia. That privilege aims to sustain the breakaway regions economically and to destroy any incentive for their residents to accept Georgian citizenship. The exemption, in effect, erases the internationally recognized border between Russia and Georgia in the Abkhaz and South Ossetian sectors. It amounts to a step toward the de facto incorporation of those regions into Russia’s customs and legal systems.

President Vladimir Putin has taken personal responsibility for these measures. Putin and other Kremlin officials declare that the measures can be reversed if Georgia proves more receptive to Russia’s policies in general (Itar-Tass, RIA, November 28-December 5; ORT, NTV, December 3-5; Prime-News, Kavkasia Press, Black Sea Press, Tbilisi Radio, November 25-December 5; October 24, November 16, December 1, 4-5; Fortnight in Review, November 3, December 1).

Officially, Moscow claims to be punishing Georgia for allegedly harboring Chechen “terrorists” and allowing “international terrorists” to reach Chechnya via Georgia. Those old, never-proven charges are patently contrived. The OSCE’s mission which monitors the Chechen sector of that border never backed them. And in Chechnya itself, the Russian troops were only able to show a grand total of four “international terrorists” as of July of this year (The Economist, July 7). The prominent French war correspondent Anne Nivat encountered a small handful of foreign fighters–one of them the commander Khattab–in the course of a four-month assignment in Chechen-held areas; she did encounter more Russian than foreign fighters on the Chechen side (Nivat presentation at Harvard cited by Miriam Lanskoy in The NIS Observed, November 29).

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