Visas, Iranians and Georgia's Foreign Policy

In 2012, then President Saakashvili, and local government officials in Batumi, assured then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Georgia’s close relationships with both Israel and Iran were working out fine; and that despite growing tensions between their two countries, Israeli and Iranian tourists enjoyed partying together in the discotheques and nightclubs of Batumi. Clinton described a local Ajaran official telling her “if you go to the discos late at night, the two kinds of people that are left are the Iranians and the Israelis.” Although it is difficult to determine the accuracy of this description of nightlife in Batumi, the aspiration expressed, that Georgia could become a common ground where people from throughout the broader region could visit for work or holiday, was a real one.

That comment about the nightclubs in Batumi was partially an effort to overlook that Georgia-Israel relations were going through a difficult period in 2012, as well as an attempt to dodge the issue of what it meant for a strong US ally like Georgia to open itself up to such a large Iranian presence. The notion that Israelis and Iranians were simply peacefully passing their time together in Batumi could not be taken too seriously, particularly as only a few months earlier a Georgian working for the Israeli embassy in Tbilisi was the target of a car bomb that the Israelis believed was the work of Iran.

Over the last few years, this aspiration of Georgia as a peaceful middle ground for Iranians and Israelis has been replaced by a new set of visa policies that have made it harder for many, particularly, but not only Iranians, to come to, and stay in, Georgia. Some recent poorly chosen words by Justice Minister Thea Tsulukiani exacerbated the problem.

“When this [immigration] reform became effective On September 1, this caused a decrease of 42,000 people in the flow of tourists to our country during the last four months of 2014 – the Chinese, Iraqis, Iranians, and Egyptians...We narrowed this down, and we achieved success in Brussels, and we expect some kind of success at the Riga Summit...Then we can exercise control within the established framework and allow those who wish well for our country, tourists, or, what is most important, investors.”

Tsulukiani seemed to be suggesting that keeping some people, like Chinese, Iraqis, Iranians and Egyptions, out of Georgia was good for the country, and that the impetus for these actions came from Europe. The government of Iran was not happy about these comments and a meeting between the Iranian Ambassador to Georgia and representatives of the Georgian government was held where, apparently, some of Iran’s concerns were put to rest. 

Tsulukiani’s comments although not phrased as well as they should have been, probably reflected more truth than many would like to recognize. Clearly, the EU, and the US for that matter, have concerns about who can come to Georgia, what they can do in Georgia, and where they can go from Georgia-and clearly Iran is one of the country’s about which they are most worried.

The broader issue of making it possible for foreigners from many different countries to work, build businesses and live in the country for extended periods of time is critical. A country that cannot guarantee this will have a difficult time drawing entrepreneurs to build businesses and employ people. Additionally, on a recent trip to Georgia, several Georgian businesspeople told me they had encountered difficulty securing longterm visas for skilled workers they needed for their businesses.

Georgia’s new visa policies have thus damaged the tourist industry and made Georgia a less appealing place for investors. These are not things that a country in Georgia’s economic condition can afford to do. However, it should also be mentioned that not every foreigner, even every western foreigner, is building a business or contributing to the Georgian economy; and that every country has the right to exercise control over its borders. 

For Georgia, the visa issues links directly to the larger question of crafting a multi-vectored foreign policy at a time when relations with the west are fine, but further integration into the EU, and particularly NATO, is moving slowly. This has led some to probe the growing role, and influence, of Russia in Georgia, but Georgia’s foreign policy, and role in global politics should not be reduced to Russia or the west. This is not a question of where Georgia should turn if its aspirations to join western institutions fail, but more a question of what Georgia’s relationship with Turkey, Iran, the Middle East or China should be now, and if it becomes the southeasternmost outpost of NATO or the EU. 

Thus, while relations with Iran, for example, are a very different question for Georgia than for other countries in Europe, Georgia still needs to develop that relationship in the context of their own role as part of Europe. This is part of what Tsulukiani was trying to articulate. She failed, however, largely because she said out loud what many policy makers in western countries probably think, but realize should not be made explicit. It is likely true that Georgia would look less appealing to many in Europe if the number of Iranian tourists continued to grow and the Chinese businesspeople began to outnumber those from the west. The US would certainly look at Georgia differently if this were the case, but it is still not wise for anybody in the Georgian government to say this so clearly, and with such little regard to nuance.

Nonetheless Georgia cannot see Iran as simply a dangerous country on the cusp of developing nuclear weapons, as it is viewed by many in Washington. That characterization may be accurate, but for Georgia, Iran is also almost a neighbor and, from the perspective from Tbilisi, no real threat to security. Moreover, because of the longstanding tension between Russia and Georgia, Tbilisi would be additionally unwise to see Iran in such harsh terms. Georgia, however, cannot simply ignore the threat Iran represents to other Georgian allies like Israel or the often destructive role Iran is playing in the nearby Middle East. For Georgia, the challenge lies in finding a balance-one that does not preclude trade with Iran or Iranian tourists coming to Georgia, but also one that does not treat Iran as if it were just another friendly European country.

Georgia’s relationship with Iran, and the government’s apparent attitudes towards visitors from countries like Iran, Egypt and China reflects the tension driving Georgia’s identity. Georgia primarily sees itself, and seeks to cement its identity as, part of Europe, but the sometimes inconvenient geographical reality is that the greater Middle East is a lot closer to Georgia than Europe is. Additionally, China’s enormous, and growing, influence in Central Asia has brought that rising power closer to Georgia too. Paradoxically, while Georgia has long sought to stress its position on the crossroads of Asia and Europe, and between East and West, this has not become part of the country’s political identity, which remains firmly positioned towards the west.

Georgia should, of course, continue to pursue its European course, but a broader foreign policy and more nuanced identity is important, not least because it can help strengthen Georgia in relation to its major security threat, Russia. If Georgia is only seen as a battleground between the west and Russia, and positions itself to make that seem to be the case, other powers will have no stake in Georgia’s future. This will leave Georgia vulnerable to an aggressive Russia while depending on western powers that might generously be described as being lukewarm in their willingness to come to the aid of country’s like Ukraine and Georgia when imperiled by Russia.

If, however, Georgia is more integrated into the region, and has stronger ties with other nearby powers, potential Russian aggression will be seen differently by those powers. In other words, the more trade and tourism Georgia has with China and Iran, the more likely those countries will be to be concerned about what Russia does in Georgia. China, for example, will care a lot more about Russian actions that imperils their trade with Georgia than about Georgia as a battleground between Russia and the US.

For most countries foreign policy is about balance; and Georgia is no exception. For many years this balance was applied to Georgia’s efforts to navigate between Russia and the west. Those years are now part of the past. Georgia has cast its lot with the west; and Russia has increasingly demonstrated itself unable to see that choice as anything but a hostile rebuke to Moscow. For Georgia, however, balance now is primarily about Georgia’s relationship with its neighborhood to the south and east, and the ability to strengthen those connections in a way that reinforces, rather than threatens Georgia’s deepening ties to the west.

The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet space.  If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research, analysis or consulting for your business, government, campaign or other organization, please email