Author: Fuad HUSEYNALIYEV
Three-day folk festivals, songs and dances in the streets, fireworks... Tbilisi enjoyed the last days of March in fun galore challenging even the Novruz festivities in Baku. That’s how the Georgians celebrated the country’s entry into a visa-free regime with Europe.
The Georgians have made a tangible step in its direction even if they failed to achieve a long-expected full-fledged entry into the European Union. Indeed, it took almost three years for the Georgian authorities to comply with all the requirements for obtaining a visa-free regime after signing the association agreement with the EU. But now the citizens of Georgia do not have to go through long procedures in embassies and consulates to visit 30 European countries but the Great Britain and Ireland. Among them are 22 Schengen countries, four non-EU countries (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland), as well as the four Schengen candidate states (Bulgaria, Cyprus, Romania, Croatia).
On the morning of March 28, the Georgian Prime Minister Georgy Kvirikashvili demonstrated the opportunity to visit Europe by visiting Athens and Brussels with his regular biometric passport. "Today is a historic day - visa-free travel to the EU countries for citizens of Georgia started. This is a very great achievement and a good opportunity for our citizens to get to know the EU better, to learn more about the values on which the European Union stands,” said Kvirikashvili before leaving for Europe heading a group of Georgian citizens, mostly the youth.
In Brussels, the Prime Minister was also greeted with congratulations. According to the President of the European Council Donald Tusk, the visa-free regime is important not only for Georgia but also for the European Union. He called this day historic and stressed that this step has further brought Georgia closer to the European Union.
But no matter how easy it seems to leave for Europe, in fact there are still many nuances and obstacles. The air ticket is the smallest of them, given the large number of budget flights from Georgia to several European cities.
Visa-free does not an open door yet
The visa-free regime does not completely eliminate the need to have practically the same list of documents that are required to obtain a visa. That is, Georgian citizens must have a return ticket, hotel booking, financial means for staying in Europe (€50 per day per person) and many more, depending on the purpose of visit. For example, if it is a trip to solve the health problems, an invitation from the medical organization is necessary. If it is a car purchase (in this case there may not be a return ticket), it is required to have the purchase agreement or its printout, etc. All these documents will be checked by the Georgian border service before the departure. But even the availability of all documents provides no guarantee of entering one of the European countries - the final verdict is left upon the border service of the host country. The reason for the refusal may be, for example, a stamp on deportation from non-European countries. And since April 7, the amended rules of the Schengen Borders Code have come into force, which requires a thorough check of the entry into the territory of the Schengen zone.
In fact, with all the necessary documents to obtain a Schengen visa, a Georgian citizen may still be denied of entry and miss a flight and money for an air ticket, whereas refusal of a visa at an embassy in Tbilisi would help to avoid these expenses. According to R+, there were already precedents when the citizens of Georgia who left the EU on visa-free travel were returned from European airports because of lack of hotel reservation or a return ticket.
Under the visa-free regime, one can stay in Europe for 90 days within six months only as a tourist, short-term educational or business trips, and also for medical purposes. At the same time, for a work permit or long-term training one needs to get a visa. For violation of visa-free regime is bound to deportation at the expense of the violator and a ban on entry to Europe for five years and a fine of up to €3,000. Moreover, the Georgian authorities are also involved in the search for the violators, for which a large number of violators can lead to the abolition of the visa-free regime.
A thorny path
But in general, the visa-free regime has become a very important step in supporting the Euro-Atlantic drift of Tbilisi.
In particular, the EU took this step facing the growing migration problems stemming from the Middle East and Africa and the rejection of most Europeans of the open door policy. After all, no one can guarantee that all Georgians who have entered Europe without a visa will try to find a job and stay there even illegally. Under the previous visa regime, three out of ten Georgians would visit the EU in search of employment. This number can increase now. Despite these risks, the EU completed the visa liberalization process promised if the association agreement is signed.
According to the Carnegie Center in Moscow, the European Union needed to create "a precedent for rewarding and encouraging a small country that, for all 25 years without exception, has been genuinely and unswervingly striving to be part of the West." "The authorities have changed but Georgia has never refused the declared course for the last quarter of a century, has not taken back the application for the NATO membership from Brussels (compared to Ukraine under Yanukovich). It has constantly dispatched large contingents to Iraq (in comparison with the scale of the country), Kosovo, Afghanistan, the CAR. Often, Georgian contingents were larger in size compared to the veteran NATO member states... In general, it is also inconvenient to do nothing and leave the long-standing aspiration of this post-Soviet country without a response. After all, the prestige, responsibility, and civilizational attractiveness are not only abstract concepts and should be periodically confirmed by concrete steps in foreign policy. Especially when it comes to competition with other centers of power," stated the Carnegie Center.
Despite the Georgian authorities’ claims that the visa-free regime applies also to citizens of the country living in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, this is unlikely to trigger the return of the rebel regions under Tbilisi's control. But in any case, the introduction of the visa-free agreement has become an important factor in the real introduction of points on the Euro-association.
Another advantage of the agreement was the facilitation of trade barriers for Georgian goods within the framework of "deep and comprehensive free trade space" agreement, which became effective in full in mid-2016. On the other hand, while the duties will be canceled shortly for the Georgian exporters of goods, Tbilisi tried to protect the domestic market from the influx of European products for a certain period of time in order to enable local producers to compete with more advanced rivals. As a result, Tbilisi counted on a significant increase in exports to the EU, especially the agricultural products, mineral waters and wine. However, reality is still far from expectations, as evidenced by official statistics.
According to the Georgian Statistics Service, amidst a fall in Georgia's foreign trade turnover by 13% in 2015, its trade with the EU increased by 6% (exports (4%) and imports (6%). Meanwhile, the results of 2016, when the free trade agreement entered into force, do not inspire much optimism. With the growth of the total commodity turnover of Georgia by 20%, foreign trade with the EU countries also increased by 14%. However, its structure was not in favor of the Georgian manufacturer - with the growth of imports from the EU by 20%, exports sank by 12%. This means that fears over the influx of European products and the non-competitiveness of Georgian producers are gradually justified.
Georgia hopes that the association agreement will be the first step towards a full-fledged entry into the EU. Although direct accession to the EU is in no way associated with this agreement, new members of the Union from the Eastern Europe and the Balkans gained access to the through the Euro-association. That is why immediately after the introduction of the visa-free regime, the Georgian Foreign Ministry presented a plan to achieve full accession to the EU based on six points. Among them is the implementation of institutional and legislative reforms; maximum integration with specialized agencies of the EU; increasing the effectiveness of Georgia's participation in the EU programs; integration with the internal market of the EU, etc.
For the EU, however, the acceptance of Georgia is fraught with many risks, including the weakness of the latter’s economy and the unsettled conflicts with Abkhazia and North Ossetia. For the same reason, Georgia's path to NATO is hampered and it is unclear whether Tbilisi's membership in the Alliance will be possible at all. According to the NATO representative in the South Caucasus, William Lahue, as the necessary reforms are implemented, Georgia will someday receive an invitation to NATO but Tbilisi must decide on the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia independently. "All NATO members recognize the territorial integrity of Georgia. And when Georgia receives an invitation to NATO, it will have to independently decide on the status of these territories. Because no one will use the fifth paragraph (when an attack on one of the member states means an attack on the Alliance as a whole) in these territories,".
However, it is also impossible to completely deny the full membership of Georgia in the EU and NATO. But this path will be longer and thornier, especially in the light of the growing Euroscepticism in the EU member states and the strengthening of centrifugal forces.