By Zaal Anjaparidze
Russia is pressing ahead with its threat to set up a visa regime with Georgia following its decision this past summer to pull out of the CIS agreement on visa-free travel between member states. Last month, the Russian and Georgian sides held negotiations in Moscow on a visa regime, but they led nowhere. The parties found each other’s attitudes unacceptable, with the Russian side proposing what amounted to discriminatory measures against Georgians living in Russia.
Meanwhile, a Russian delegation led by Vladimir Lukin, a State Duma deputy speaker and member of the Yabloko faction, paid an official visit to Tbilisi in mid-November. The Russian delegation said that if the Georgian government agrees to create a liberal visa regime for Abkhazians, Ossetians and the families of Russian servicemen living in Georgia, Georgian citizens living in Russia would not be expelled immediately following the introduction of the visa regime. “We have achieved a mutually acceptable agreement on visa regimes with Ukraine, Armenia and Azerbaijan, so why not achieve such an agreement with Georgia?” he said. Tbilisi, however, turned down the Russian offer, and Moscow is expected to introduce a visa regime unilaterally on December 5.
Moscow’s decision in August of this year to withdraw from the 1992 Bishkek Agreement hit the Georgian establishment hard, sending out ripples of fear over what the consequences will mean for Georgia. At the top of the officials’ worry list is their fear that the move will force hundreds of thousands of Georgian citizens working in Russia to return home, where they will find no jobs. As a parliamentarian put it: “This will cause internal instability.”
Various Georgian officials and analysts have given their assessments and predictions concerning the consequences of the visa regime for Georgia and its future relations with Russia. Roman Gotsiridze, head of the parliamentary budgetary office, warned that the effects of tougher measures by Russia would hit Georgia hard economically. His office estimates that Georgians employed in Russia transfer up to US$400 million per year back home. Others fear the creation of a visa regime could result in Georgia losing up to 400,000 of its citizens for good. Many of Georgia’s top-level professionals moved to Russia temporarily after the break up of the Soviet Union, intending to return one day. When push comes to shove they are likely to renounce their Georgian citizenship in favor of Russian. Georgian legislation forbids citizens holding dual citizenship.
It is also worth noting that a large number of people living in Georgia, especially the national minorities, are still linked with Russia through diverse economic, cultural and other ties. After the introduction of the visa regime many of them are expected to accept Russian citizenship. Keeping in mind Moscow’s well-known doctrine of protecting the rights of Russian-speaking inhabitants throughout the post-Soviet space, there is a high probability that these people will become an instrument of Russia’s policy toward Georgia.
Most political analysts predict that Moscow will impose a “strong visa regime,” along the lines of that with the United States or the United Kingdom.