This year, Tbilisi celebrated the EU’s decision to pursue an “open-door” policy and give Georgian citizens the right to enter the Schengen zone without visa. The decision was highly praised by various political actors and proclaimed as a significant political victory for the post-Soviet state.
At the same time, some experts have doubts about the visa liberalization policy. Moreover, the notion of a “great victory” reminded many of a few similar stories that have been celebrated by local political elites as grand achievements that later turned out to be a part of political populism and simple exaggeration; an attempt to overshadow a domestic political, economic and/or social crisis.
From George W. Bush to the 2008 August War
There are three prominent cases that have been re-thought: George W. Bush’s visit to Georgia, the NATO Bucharest Summit and the 2008 August War.
For such a small country as Georgia, which at both the internal and external level significantly depend on support from strategic partners, it is a great honor to host high-ranking officials. The US President’s visit was the highest victory for Georgia, especially when taking into consideration the fact that this was the only time a US president had ever visited South Caucasia. George W. Bush gave a speech in the city center of Tbilisi on May 10, 2005 and proclaimed Georgia as a beacon of democracy in the region. Moreover, he argued that his administration had drawn a ‘red line’ over Caucasia, meaning that Russia should not try to intervene in the State’s affairs. Only, during the 2008 August War, Georgian society realized that the visit was more about PR rather than real politics. Georgia’s president Mikhail Saakashvili used it to legitimize his government’s aggressive “zero tolerance” policy that led to power abuse and frequent cases of human rights violations that Bush’s administration mainly ignored. Bush himself considered the Tbilisi trip a political step to boost his political popularity at home by showing the “success story” of his foreign policy, which was under fire over the Afghanistan and Iraq operations. Finally, neither Saakashvili nor Bush thought about the impact the visit would have on Georgian-Russian relations. While the leaders of both countries were trying to solve internal issues, the Kremlin perceived it as a direct threat to national security. Moscow’s approach became even more offensive which, in combination with Bush’s Tbilisi “assurances” and Saakashvili’s hot-headed nature, led to the 2008 August War.
The NATO 2008 Bucharest Summit is probably the most interesting case. At the end of 90s, the second president of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze, knocked on NATO doors. Saakashvili’s pro-Western government took all measures to finally integrate Tbilisi into the military organization; it even conducted a state referendum to officially prove the devotion of local society to the goal. In 2008, due to extreme support from the Eastern European countries (Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia) and the US administration, Georgia was never before as close to acquiring the so called MAP (The Membership Action Plan). But despite this unique political back-up, the attempt failed and instead of received MAP, representatives of NATO member states expressed merely a commitment to integrate Georgia and Ukraine once they meet the respective criteria. This commitment was proclaimed by Saakashvili’s government as another strategic victory while American and European officials praised Georgia’s democratic development. And, once again, only the August 2008 War made it clear that the decision was a huge blow to Bush administration’s foreign policy and a reflection of the Saakashvili government’s failure to gain support from leading Western European countries. Nowadays, it is frequently argued that the Bucharest decision was a political miscalculation of the West that gave a green light to Putin’s regime to stimulate the August 2008 War, rather than a victorious moment for Tbilisi.
Finally, we cannot avoid assessment of the August 2008 events themselves. This war is important not only from a political and geopolitical perspective, but also as a clear example of state propaganda. While Moscow tried hard to persuade the local electorate that this was a big victory for the Russian Federation, Tbilisi aggressively promoted the idea of exposing the Kremlin’s real face. In fact, both states lost. While Russia managed to restrain Georgia’s aspiration to become a NATO member, it created two practically internationally non-recognized self-proclaimed states totally dependent on Moscow’s political, financial and military donations. In turn, Saakashvili’s government, to undermine the catastrophic results of the conflict on the country’s political, economic and social dimensions, focused more on Russia’s international prestige. Tbilisi argued that it had managed to expose the evil nature of the Kremlin’s regime. As Russian scholar, Ivan Kurilla, perfectly noted, it is questionable whether Georgia exposed something but it is definitely unarguable that Saakashvili put his country in a position where neither the West nor liberal groups in Moscow were capable of blaming with total confidence the Russian government for the outbreak of the war. Hence, the game wasn’t worth playing.
All in all, each “breakthrough” analyzed above was presented by the Georgian government as a grand achievement to hide some concrete political misdeeds mainly connected to an inability or unwillingness to pursue a logical, politically calculated and balanced policy at home and on the international arena or were simply highly motivated political exaggeration.
What is wrong with Visa Liberalization?
There are lots of taboo topics in Georgia that will by default lead to an aggressive response from local conservatists (LGBT community rights) or liberals (NATO membership). The new issue that will probably cost the status of the pro-Russian movement is the visa liberalization. From March 28, Georgian citizens holding biometric passports are free to travel to the Schengen Zone without a visa for a period of 90 days within any 180-day period for purposes other than work. The EU’s political decision to open the door for Georgians was warmly received by pro-Western movements and democratic governments worldwide. Proponents of the Ukraine ‘Maidan’ used this precedent to motivate local society to continue on its existing political course while liberal elites opposing Putin’s regime in Moscow tried to attract more voters. The Georgian government, as usual, went all out to celebrate this “breakthrough”. European and Georgian officials and members of civil society are pretty confident that visa free movement will bring Tbilisi closer to Brussels. Only a minority of international and local experts express doubts and point to the questions this “open-door” policy raises.
One of those is whether the move will actually promote pro-Western attitudes and make more Georgians familiar with European culture? Receiving a Schengen Visa was a challenging task due to a lack of financial resources rather than the unwillingness of the local population to visit the EU. Moreover, it was never problematic to travel Europe in the scopes of various international forums, conferences, school exchanges or other activities that are well-organized and funded in Georgia. Lastly, in comparison to other areas like the USA or UK, the Schengen Zone was always perceived as the easiest to enter. So far, the move, in practice, should create new opportunities for those Georgian citizens who had issues with affordability and this is practically impossible to achieve due to the poor socio-economic situation. Georgian society experiences comparatively high levels of poverty and unemployment. Furthermore, local salaries are largely far below the European ones, added to which the country is witnessing probably the worst socio-economic crisis for the last decade. Unless improved, these factors will keep Georgian elites that never had problems with visiting EU “in” the European dream and representatives of financially less-prosperous groups “out”.
One more question that comes to mind is whether the visa free policy is about freedom of movement between Tbilisi and Brussels or is more about countering, as Georgian neoliberals actively argue, increasing pro-Russian and anti-Western sentiments in the country today. It became a tendency after the collapse of the “Rose Revolution” government, to maintain an alarmistic approach regarding internal processes in the State. Former members of Saakashvili’s regime, then representatives of other non-governmental groups, started promoting the idea of a possible deviation from the Western course with the “enhancing of ties” between Tbilisi and Moscow. Such attitudes finally found reflection in the articles and speeches of various European experts, scholars and officials calling on EU member state representatives to acknowledge Georgia’s achievements and instead offer something that would keep Georgian society devoted to the western course. As soon as NATO and EU membership was off the table, the EU leaders decided to grant Georgian citizens visa free movement.
Georgia has a long history of “breakthrough” celebrations following various political decisions announced by the government as a great victory. Lately, to the dissatisfaction of local society, it has become politically motivated exaggeration and/or an attempt to overshadow the incapability or unwillingness of the state apparatus to handle existing domestic challenges or government-non-friendly processes. EU’s visa free travel approach is definitely a positive step for Georgia, but we need to be aware of its political, social and economic aspects in order not to give the government another opportunity to hoodwink Georgian society.
The original article was published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here.