By Eka Janashia (05/27/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
The EU refused to grant Georgia a visa-free regime at the May 21 Eastern Partnership summit in Riga. The summit’s declaration heralds that Georgian citizens will be granted visa-free access to the Schengen zone as soon as all necessary reforms are in place. Although the Georgian government met only 7 of 15 compulsory requirements – conditional for obtaining an EU visa-waiver – it optimistically hoped to extract a concession. The country’s eligibility will be assessed gain at the end of 2015.
The EU-Georgia visa liberalization (VL) dialogue started in June 2012 and was embodied in a visa liberalization action plan (VLAP) one year later. VLAP demands that certain criteria are fulfilled to grant Georgian citizens a short stay in the Schengen zone without a visa.
In the fall of 2014, the European Commission (EC) reported on Georgia’s successful accomplishment of VLAP first-phase benchmarks, enabling it to move to the realization of the next phase.
The EC’s report from May 8, 2015, report categorized Georgia’s progress on VLAP criteria as “almost,” “partially” or “completely” achieved. The benchmarks regarding document security; integrated border management; fighting organized crime; protection of personal data; freedom of movement; issuance of travel and identity documents; and international legal cooperation in criminal matters were assessed as completely achieved. In the almost achieved category, the report mentioned migration management; money laundering; cooperation between various law enforcement agencies; and citizens’ rights, including protection of minorities. Among partially achieved benchmarks are asylum policy; trafficking of human beings; anti-corruption; and drug policy.
With regard to anti-corruption policy, the report urged Georgia to reform the civil service, drawing on international practice, and modify the civil service law in compliance with the scope and standards of a professional and de-politicized civil service. It also suggests revising the drug policy to confer it more “restorative” than “retribution” connotations.
The report included a comprehensive document elaborated by the Commission’s staff, based on factual analysis and statistics, on the anticipated migration and security implications of Georgia’s VL for the EU.
The document concludes that the EU is an attractive destination for Georgian migrants as well as Organized Criminal Groups (OCGs), triggering a range of potential security challenges. The paper admits that migrant flows would remain limited due to Georgia’s small population, but in case of a new armed conflict the number of Georgian citizens aspiring to settle in EU would increase considerably. In this regard, the VL could become instrumental for Georgian nationals to apply for asylum in EU member states and legalize their protected stay there.
In this perspective, the VL is not merely a technical question for Brussels but also a political one with clear security implications. In contrast, Georgia’s Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili stated that the “political decision” to grant Georgia a visa-free regime has already been take and only “technical procedures” remain.
Georgia’s political opposition slammed the government for failing to do its “homework,” depriving the country of free traveling advantages to EU.
Before the Riga summit, the government reportedly highlighted the benefits that Georgia could gain from the VL. In a joint letter, Georgia’s President Giorgi Margvelashvili, PM Gharibashvili, and speaker of parliament Davit Usupashvili asked the EU to make an “unambiguous endorsement of the visa-free regime … For Georgians, visa liberalization will provide a long-awaited tangible reward for reforms and encourage renewed efforts.” The letter said visa liberalization will promote tourism, cultural proximity, student exchange programs and civil society partnerships. More importantly, the EU visa-waiver will demonstrate to the inhabitants of the occupied territories of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions the practical advantages they could gain from reintegration with the Georgian state.
However, in the run-up to the Riga summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Georgia, along with Ukraine, has not made enough efforts to get the VL and “a lot still needs to be done,” meaning that Brussels will overhaul the process of reforming and cogently appraise Georgia’s eligibility, and detach the issue from the sensitivity of Georgia’s territorial integrity or public opinion.
While the benefits that Georgia may gain from the VL is clear, the EU’s continuous refusal to grant the country such an agreement also exposes Georgia to certain risks. According to the last polls commissioned by the U.S. National Democratic Institute (NDI), a majority of the respondents still approved of Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration. Yet the number in support of joining the Russia-led Eurasian Union has steadily increased in recent years. From 11 percent in 2013, it soared to 20 percent in 2014 and to 31 percent in 2015.
This trend simultaneously demonstrates the growing EU skepticism in the country caused by Georgia’s opaque perspective of obtaining EU membership or extracting “tangible” benefits from “political rapprochement and economic integration” with it.
As put by European Council President Donald Tusk, Kyiv, Tbilisi, and Chisinau “have their rights to have a dream, also the European dream.” Yet the slow progress in Georgia’s EU integration risks deepening the sense of alienation among Georgians and could contribute to diverting the country from the Euro-Atlantic path on which it has set out. Georgia’s government needs to work diligently to avoid such an outcome.