When you live and work in a country that only managed to restore independence in 1991 and which is developing at a fast pace, it’s no wonder you will experience days on which something live changing and historical happens. Last Thursday was such a day. The European Parliament voted and approved the visa-waiving policy for all Georgians travelling to the Schengen area, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Cyprus. The fact that the policy was approved with 553 votes in favour, and only 66 against and 28 abstentions, shows a definitive EU-backing of Georgia and its current politics. Giorgi Kvirikashivili, Georgia’s prime minister, showed big gratitude and assured Georgians would take the decision as a big responsibility, stating they would become ambassadors of the Georgian nation. Tbilisi lit up shortly after, with the EU-flag being projected on various important monuments and landmarks. The visa-waiver means Georgians can travel visa-free within the listed countries for a maximum of 90 days. However, if this maximum would be abused, or substantially more asylum applications would be made, Georgia could be deprived of the visa exemption again.
Caucasian frontrunner aiming for reconciliation and reunification?
Following the Western Balkans (except Kosovo) and Moldova, Georgia is the next country within the EU-neighbourhood to obtain visa-free travel. It’s noteworthy that Georgia has managed to do so before Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, and also Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, making it an exception in the Eastern Europe and Caucasus region. Kvirikashivili has translated this to ‘a Georgian pride’, and ‘invaluable European support for Georgia’, opening the path for ‘greater wellbeing, greater democracy, and greater energy and enthusiasm’, as well as even more support on Georgia’s rapid development.The most important part of Kvirikashivili’s speech was perhaps his words on Abkhazians and Ossetians. He called the achievement ‘a success of all Georgians’, and of which all Georgians, including Abkhazians and Ossetians, will benefit. He underlined all the people in Georgia will be unified by the close relations with Europe, be it for travelling, business, or educational purposes. Such a reconciliatory speech seems to be the new path to follow for the government in Kutaisi. After the various wars and conflicts with the breakaway regions, Georgia seems tired of negativity and conflict. The only way forward might actually be showing what Georgia has to offer to the Abkhazians and Ossetians, doing so on such positive and historical days. This was done yesterday in a bold, broad, and courageous manner. Geopolitical challenges still lure and conflict seems to be never far away, but Georgia is trying to take a different approach. This includes an inclusionary position when it comes to relations with the EU, but also good relations with the regional bigger (Russia, Turkey and Iran) and smaller players (Armenia and Azerbaijan). Hopefully, such a positive and reconciliatory discourse could make a change in an otherwise troubled and conflict-ridden region.
From my point of view, this treatment of Georgia by the EU is not only a practical one, and a reward for Georgia’s development, but also a symbolical one. As already stated, Georgia is the first Caucasian country, and after the Baltics and Moldova, only the fifth former USSR republic to welcome visa-free travel. It strengthens believe that Georgia is on the way forward, both in economic and political developments, as well in people’s mentalities. While Georgia has never hidden its ambitions to become integrated within the European Union, it has been carefully designing a path of not alienating its direct neighbours. While the wounds of war and strife may still feel fresh, the Georgians are carefully carving out a 21st-century mentality, aware of their geopolitical location, which requires a balanced position in the international community. Those balanced policies and moderateness, avoiding any type of hostility or extremity within the Caucasus, have brought Georgia this tangible result of progress.
That being said, the symbolical aspect should also be taken into account when discussing the visa waiver itself, which does not mean Georgians have the right to cross European borders without limits. There is still the fair share of paperwork involved that Georgians have to provide at the border, such as a return ticket, a bank statement and their address directions within Europe. The real difference is that there is no application in advance at the embassy of the respective Schengen country required anymore. While this could water down optimism, making place for sarcasm and negativity, I underline the importance of this decision as being symbolical. Only thirteen years ago, the Rose Revolution took place. Only nine years ago, the country still found itself in a war with Russia. Georgia has made rapid progress ever since, including better legislation on human rights and freedom, and a ‘reset’ of bilateral relations with Russia.