Berlin, 15 June, 2016: Angela Merkel and Giorgi Kvirikashvili brief the media after talks. (c) Markus Schreiber / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.It seems Georgians started counting their chickens before they’d hatched — the process of lifting visa requirements for Georgian citizens to travel to Schengen member states, already celebrated back in December, appears to be have been put on hold by the European Union. Germany, backed by France and Belgium, has resisted approving the decision, which should ultimately be voted on by the European Parliament.
The timing seems to be more than unfortunate for Georgia, its case being considered alongside with Kosovo, Turkey and Ukraine. The South Caucasian republic has met all the requirements set by the EU for visa liberalisation — the final decision should be a technicality. It is not necessarily the case for Kosovo, Turkey and Ukraine, but EU politicians prefer to lump them together.
Some experts have voiced (somewhat discriminatory) concerns of politicians that the influence of Georgian organised crime might rise as a result of visa-free travel. Or perhaps rewarding Georgia now could get in the way of patching up things with Russia. At a recent meeting with the Georgian prime minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, Angela Merkel reiterated her support for visa liberalisation, but at the same time indicated that the EU should first introduce regulations to quickly suspend visa-free travel if needed — as in the case with Turkey. In any case, this is how a technicality has become a political issue.
While most agree that Georgia will, in the end, receive its well-deserved visa liberalisation, the process is likely to be delayed until after parliamentary elections in early October. And this delay might be harmful for a young and still fragile democracy. Here’s why.
Moscow or Brussels?
If in Europe, the political divide lies along the left-right spectrum, with migration defining electoral agendas in recent years, debates about foreign policy priorities dominate Georgia's political discourse.
The Cold War might long be over, but in Georgia, the west still has to fight Russia, maybe without knowing it, to win the hearts and minds of the local population. To be more precise, Georgia’s population is not, on the whole, strongly concerned with this issue. Nationally representative surveys conducted by the National Democratic Institute have consistently demonstrated that relations with Russia or the west rank low among the issues people consider to be the most important for Georgia (unemployment and poverty rank at the top).Tbilisi celebrates initial confirmation of visa liberalisation by lighting up buildings in European Union colours.
Instead, it is mostly political elites who push the foreign policy issue to the top of the agenda. But this is understandable: the same surveys show that support for closer ties with Russia at the expense of damaging relationships with the west has grown, albeit slowly. This could be the result of increasing presence of Russian “soft power” in the country, already palpable through proliferating obscure online media outlets, or the emergence of nationalist populist political groups promoting anti-western agendas.
The ruling Georgian Dream coalition has pledged its unwavering support for Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration path. However, our main opposition party United National Movement, which is known for its fiercely anti-Russian stance, has repeatedly blamed the government for warming up to Russia and for lack of persistence in the desire to join EU and NATO.
Winners and losers of Georgian independence
Rather than demonising or marginalising the people who support the so-called “Russian course” in Georgia, as politicians often do, it is more helpful to understand the reasoning and motivation behind their opinions.
If we analyse the factors that are associated with the population’s foreign policy preferences, we can see that the strongest predictors of “pro-Russian” support are level of income, age and place of residence. That is to say, people who are poorer, older and living in rural areas are much more likely to say that they would rather support Georgia’s accession to the Eurasian Economic Union rather than the EU. When asked about why they support this foreign policy alternative, the overwhelming majority of people cite economic, not political reasons.
This leads us to the core of the issue. The period of independence has not been an easy one in Georgia. The country’s GDP, which fell by over 70% from 1991 to 1994, did not recover to its pre-transition levels until 2005. GDP per capita is still very low, even compared to other countries in the region. Meanwhile, inequality has dramatically increased — with a spectacular jump of GINI index from 26 in 1990 to 40 in 1996 — and has remained stable. This means that people at the lower end of income distribution are worse off than they were, or would have been, in the late Soviet Union.
These “losers” of Georgia’s post-Soviet transition — the poor, the elderly, the rural dwellers — have not enjoyed the benefits from the country’s “western course”. This is true of the 1990s, as well as of the period after the 2003 Rose Revolution. In fact, while the post-revolutionary government insisted on being pro-European, it did little to resemble Europe when caring for socially and economically vulnerable groups. Instead, they focused on privatising public services.
The current government, while appealing to the sentiments of these groups in its pre-electoral campaigns, has proved incapable of meeting their expectations. These people recall Soviet times with nostalgia, perhaps partly because they were young back then, but also because they were at least slightly better off (or so they believe), and at least they could afford to travel to Russia and other Soviet republics.
These people do not like the west and Europe, they do not know the west and Europe, they have never been to the west and Europe. In fact, sometimes they blame the west and Europe for worsening their living conditions. Populist activist groups, allegedly funded by the Kremlin, are eager to exploit this sceptical and apathetic mood and, much like their counterparts in Russia, promote the image of the west as morally degraded, as the force fighting against Georgia’s “traditional values” and as the partner who cannot be trusted
The visa liberalisation process is, of course, primarily about free travel: the people who are so hostile now towards the west will get a chance to see it with their own eyes (of course, not all will manage, but definitely, a lot).
But it is much more than that: visa liberalisation is a very clear demonstration from Europe that they want to be our friends. All the other agreements and commitments are somehow abstract and their benefits are not so tangible for people.
The likely delay of visa liberalisation process does not only give the sceptics one more triumphant “I-told-you-so” moment. Georgian Dream’s inability to secure visa liberalisation will, undoubtedly, dominate political debates in the run-up to the elections. More alarmingly, populist parties with ultra-nationalist messages such as Alliance of Patriots of Georgia and Democratic Movement – United Georgia might gain more trust among the disillusioned population. There is a real threat that these groups will join forces and manage to secure seats in the parliament. And with no parties expected to secure majority, they will have strong bargaining power.
On 18 December 2015, the European Commission formally confirmed that Georgia had fulfilled all the requirements of the visa liberalisation agreement and Georgian citizens would be able to freely travel to Europe by the end of summer 2016 at the latest. The country celebrated that day extravagantly: all major sights were lit up in the colours of the European flag.
Too little too soon, it turns out. Being a resident of an EU country, I firmly believe that opening up borders for Georgian citizens to freely travel to the west is a small, but necessary step for the country to move forward instead of standing still, or sliding backwards to the chaos of 1990s. The sooner people and politicians realise this — both inside and outside Georgia — the better.
Want to find out more about polarisation and political contestation in Eurasia? Check out this article on how Ukraine is experiencing a very "European" form of mobilisation.