A Long Awaited Win for Georgia-Visa Free Travel to Europe

After several years, Georgia has finally achieved one of its major goals-visa free travel to the European Union (EU). This new policy will make it much easier for Georgians to travel to Europe, go back and forth between Georgia and Europe and to further strengthen business and cultural ties between the EU and Georgia. It will not, however, make it significantly easier for Georgians to live or work in the EU. Nonetheless, this is clearly an important accomplishment for Georgia that will have a direct effect on many in that country, and in indirect effect on many more.

The visa free relationship is also an important achievement for another reason. It demonstrates the capacity of the Georgian government, and the Georgian state, to accomplish something significant and concrete. For many years Georgia has bounced between goals that are abstract such as democracy, territorial integrity and modernity, and achievements that are symbolic frequently leading to more tasks and goals, such as the EU association agreement signed in 2014. Additionally developments like elections that are described as a step in the right direction, or slight improvements to the economy often feel very abstract to ordinary Georgians. This has led to a political system where platitudes and promises are too frequently confused with outcomes. For example, pledging a commitment to territorial integrity or to affluence through radical economic reform, in the past, have too frequently been presented by politicians as accomplishments in of themselves.

The new visa arrangement is different both because it is very tangible for many Georgians, and because to achieve this goal Georgia had to demonstrate meaningful policy changes and policy implementation in several different areas. Therefore, the visa free agreement is a reflection of the capacity of the Georgian state to do things like ensure border security, craft and execute immigration and asylum policies consistent with those of the EU and meet other political criteria. This accomplishment is a result of the state building that has occurred in Georgia over the last several years and gives lie to the notion that the current government is inefficient and unable to get anything done.

For decades the Georgian people and their leaders have been forced into a dynamic where they are constantly being asked to reform, strengthen their institutions, become more democratic and generally align their policies with those of the EU in exchange for rewards that seemingly always get pushed off into the near, but not quite reachable, future. This has engendered resentment among the Georgian people and helped sap the political will for the very changes the west wants to see in Georgia, policies that in the long run would bring benefits to Georgia as well. It is possible that the visa free arrangement will change this dynamic by demonstrating to the Georgian people that sometimes there are real rewards associated with following the demands of western institutions and states.

Visa free travel differs from the EU association agreement and from various NATO related promises over the last few years because it will have an immediate impact for many in Georgia. The ability to travel more freely to Europe and spend more time there will make life much more convenient and avoid the humiliating and time consuming hassles associated with securing or renewing visas that many Georgians experience when traveling to Europe. It will also make it easier for Georgians to go to Europe who have unable or unwilling to go through that process.

The longer term political impact of this is, of course, very significant as well. An increase in travel from Georgia to Europe will normalize Georgia, and make the country seem more European, in the eyes of the many in the EU. Georgia is not a big country with a huge population so it is not as if tens of millions of Georgian visitors will now be going France, Germany or Italy, but there will still be an impact, perhaps not always a conscious one. For example, at international conferences or work settings, Europeans will begin to see more Georgians and to recognize that those Georgians have easy access to Europe. This will, again consciously or not, make Georgians seem more European in the eyes of many.

As more Georgians travel to Europe, particularly those a bit outside of the elites who have already generally found ways to get the documents they need, Georgians will become more familiar with Europe and the culture, outlooks and opportunities associated with it. It would be presumptuous to assume this will automatically make Georgians more positively predisposed to Europe, thus strengthening Georgia’s commitment to the west and to reform. It is possible that as more Georgians travel to Europe, they will bring back negative stories about Europe leading to greater discontent with Europe. However, Europe and Georgia are both betting that more exposure to Europe will make Georgians like the EU even more. On balance, it is probably a good bet.

Another important part of the visa free agreement is that the policy extends to people living in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. it is very unlikely this will lead to flood of tourists or other visitors from those two regions into Europe. Most residents of those two regions do not have Georgian passports or the resources to travel to Europe. More importantly, it is almost certain that Moscow will do whatever it can to prevent residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from taking advantage of this new arrangement. While in the short term, this is an unfortunate limitation that Russia will place on these people, it is also good for Tbilisi. It not only highlights the differences between Russia and Georgia in a way that is clearly good for Georgia, but it forces Russia into the position of once again limiting opportunity for the people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This will contribute to divisions between Moscow and these two regions. That too is good for Georgia, and for the west. 

It is also possible that because this visa agreement concretizes what has otherwise been years of abstractions, platitudes and slogans about Europe, something will change within Georgian politics. It would be overly optimistic to assume that this will lead to the evaporation of anti-European sentiment, reactionary views on social questions or an end to the until now endless debate about Georgia’s geopolitical orientation. Nonetheless, it is possible that the Georgian people will be less sated by promises and bold statements and more interested in the next concrete, even if it is small, step towards integration into the west. While this may lead to more impatience, it will also lead the Georgian people to demand more and hold their elected officials accountable not based on what they say, but on what they can deliver. There are no guarantees this will happen, but it would be a profound change to Georgian politics if it did.

The EU to which Georgians will now gain much increased access is very different than the one that existed even a year or two ago. The UK is in the midst of leaving the EU due to a referendum campaign in which immigration policy was a central issue. Additionally, the rise of nativist sentiments and populist leaders seeking to exploit that sentiment in many countries including France, the Netherlands and Germany are also a central component of the European political environment. The refugee crisis continues to pose questions that EU seems largely unable to answer, while Russia’s nefarious efforts to destabilize the EU appear to be bearing some fruit.

Together these developments imperil the future of the EU and should raise concerns for aspirant countries like Georgia. It is entirely possible that in the next five to ten years the EU will develop into something very unlike what it has been, and will be a much less appealing destination for Georgia. All of that is true, but in the short term not of great relevance. Even if Europe is moving in a more nativist, exclusionary and populist direction, it is still to Georgia’s advantage for Georgians to be able to travel more freely to and from countries that are part of the EU.

Visa free travel to the EU has been a Georgian goal for several years. It is a victory for which the Georgian people and successive governments worked very hard for many years. In the short run, it will make a lot of Georgian’s lives easier and may even have more profound impacts. It is also clearly an intermediary step meaning that the demand for greater and faster integration into Europe, both from the Georgian people to their own government and from the Georgian state to the EU will only increase in the coming months in years. This is a good development because it can create some momentum towards these goals, but the Georgian leadership in particular needs to be aware of this. Ironically, achieving this long sought after goal will put the Georgian government under more pressure to meet the next one soon.

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 region.  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 lincoln@lincolnmitchell.com.