Georgia’s ruling party has attributed emigration tendencies over recent years to visa-free travel with the European Union, downplaying simmering concerns about large numbers of people leaving or wanting to leave the country amid economic and political frustration.
The government has tried to pass various reforms to address some of the country’s most pressing economic concerns. But at the same time it is considering laws that could arouse more, not less, motivation among young Georgians to leave.
On February 20, Irakli Kobakhidze, the chairman of Georgian Dream, the party that has been in power for over a decade, said that net emigration in 2018-2021 totaled “only” 29,000 people and that this net outflow was a natural consequence of the abolishment of the visa requirement with EU countries.
“When an economically strong country eases its visa regime with a relatively economically weak country, naturally, this fact aids the outflow of people,” Kobakhidze wrote in a Facebook post, citing the cases of Baltic countries where, he said, the exodus rose after they joined the European Union.
Kobakhidze’s comments worried some government critics, who saw it as a continuation of the ruling party’s controversial anti-EU rhetoric, this time a suggestion that visa-free travel – widely regarded as the key accomplishment on Georgia’s EU integration path – is not ultimately in the country’s interests.
But the comments also come as the mass exodus of Georgians is becoming a hotly debated political issue. Hundreds of thousands of Georgians are currently living abroad after having been driven to emigrate by the economic problems of recent decades. (Georgia’s population was 3.7 million according to the last census, conducted in 2014.)
Studies have shown that the introduction of visa-free travel to the EU in 2017 indeed contributed to the uptick in net emigration of Georgians after years of downtrend, and European governments have sounded the alarm about the rapidly mounting asylum requests from Georgia.
While Georgia provides migration statistics, they are hard to interpret, particularly amid lax immigration policies that allow citizens of many countries to stay visa-free for up to a year, and also given the National Statistics Office (Geostat) definitions of immigrant and emigrant. One is considered an immigrant if they spend, according to Border Police data, at least 183 days per year in Georgia after arriving in the past 12 months, and an emigrant if they go and stay abroad for the same timeframe.
In the period of 2012-2021, Georgia’s net migration amounts to -73,610 persons, while the number reaches -198,569 if only counting Georgian citizens leaving/returning to the country. The statistics also do not allow differentiation between foreigners and Georgian-born emigrants who have obtained foreign citizenship.
And the EU visa-free regime fails to explain a separate prominent trend where growing numbers of Georgians have been embarking on the very risky, costly, and difficult path of illegally entering the United States via Mexico. On February 18, for example, police said they detained three smugglers allegedly helping Georgians reach the U.S. border through third countries. It wasn't the first such arrest in recent months.
But Kobakhidze also had an explanation for this, arguing that it was strict American visa policies – citing the 37 percent rate of approval for Georgians’ [non-immigrant] visa applications in 2021 – that forced many to take a risky road.
Those policies also have their positive effects, the party chairman argued.
“The strict visa policy substantially hinders the immigration of Georgians into the U.S., which has its positive effects. The net migration, naturally, would have worsened if the U.S. had softened its visa regime.”
The backlog for U.S. visa appointments at the American embassy in Tbilisi is thought to be a contributing proximate cause of the rising number of illegal emigration attempts. But economic frustration coupled with political disappointment is seen as the main driving force behind the broader phenomenon of emigration.
Despite surprising economic growth over the past year (partly as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine), economic problems remain acute, with yearly inflation continuously hitting records. The prices of housing and food are particularly inflated, and have spurred waves of labor protests. This while employers have been complaining that workers choose to emigrate rather than work for low salaries, leading to labor shortages in various fields.
And polls have shown that a fifth of Georgians are considering emigration to find work abroad.
The government, while blaming global trends, has recently tried to pass reforms to curb what it has recognized as enormously inflated prices. This has included a set of reforms to make medications more affordable, like a regulation of external reference pricing that took effect last week. And now the authorities aim to push similar reforms to curb the prices of imported groceries, which they say are sometimes sold with as much as a 100 percent markup.
But these economic reforms are unlikely to bring an overnight miracle or resolve the political resentments that have also driven Georgians abroad.
The opposite could happen as the recent legislative plans of the ruling party have raised fears of an intensified crackdown on critical voices that will eventually push many educated professionals to emigrate.
The ruling party recently said it would back a controversial bill on the transparency of “foreign influence agents” that would force foreign-funded non-profits and media outlets to register as foreign agents and face substantial fines if they fail to properly declare their revenues.
Critics overwhelmingly agree that those laws copy the oppressive practices of undemocratic countries such as Russia. And the group behind the bill has been pondering introducing more restrictive laws on the media. These plans have led to concerns about a possible brain drain.
“The day is near when I will have to make a choice: to register as an ‘agent of foreign influence,’ or refuse this and then pay fines or [abide by] whatever else is added to this law, or to give up this work for good and leave this country,” Giorgi Gogua, a Georgian journalist, wrote in an editorial for the Media Checker website.
That sentiment is shared by many of his colleagues, as well as experts who fear far-reaching consequences of such laws.
The foreign agent laws “will negatively affect the aspirations of Georgia's young and educated generation, many of whom may even consider leaving the country (just as [happened] in Russia),” Hubertus Jahn, a professor of the history of Russia and the Caucasus at the University of Cambridge, told the Georgian Institute of Politics, a Tbilisi-based think tank, in February.
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.