Georgia's relationship with Russia is entering a critical phase, in which Moscow is seeking to compel Tbilisi's acquiescence on an array of geo-strategic issues by threatening to introduce a visa requirement for Georgians.
Russian officials have announced that they intend to introduce the visa regime on December 5 for Georgians wishing to travel to Russia. Some officials in Moscow say the entry requirements are needed to prevent the infiltration of militants into Russian territory. "We must raise a barrier for criminal groups on our border," Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told the Interfax news agency.
Russia has repeatedly accused Georgia of failing to adequately control the country's border with the renegade Russian region of Chechnya. Chechen fighters have reportedly utilized the porous border to transport men and materiel to help sustain their resistance effort. Russian presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky cited Georgia's stance on Chechnya as a significant factor in the Kremlin's decision to introduce the visa requirement, according to the Itar-Tass news agency. "In verbal form we have been repeatedly assured of a joint [Georgian-Russian] struggle against terrorism, and that our concern over the terrorist problems is understood, but this is unfortunately not confirmed by deeds," Itar-Tass quoted Yastrzhembsky as saying.
Chechnya is not the only factor that appears to be motivating Russian policy on the visa issue. In addition to Tbilisi's "neutrality" on the Chechen war, Russia is seeking Georgian concessions in negotiations on the closure of Russian military bases in Georgia. Concurrently, Russia is pressing for Georgia's withdrawal from the GUUAM group of states, and its accession to the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union. Also, Russia wants Georgia to support Moscow's stance on the development of Caspian Basin oil and gas resources.
Georgian officials have said they will never agree to such Russian demands in exchange for the scrapping of the pending visa regime. Some MPs have called for Georgia's withdrawal from the CIS if Russia implements visa requirements. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archives].
A visa regime could cause extensive damage to the fragile Georgian economy. At present, up to half a million Georgians live and work in Russia. These migrant workers annually repatriate an estimated $600-$700 million to friends and relatives in Georgia, a considerable sum in a country with an estimated per capita GDP of $2,200.
Russian officials have said that all those Georgians already in Russia before the imposition of visa requirements would have until March 1, 2001 to comply with the new rules. Similar exemptions would be granted to personnel and their families now working on Russian military bases in Georgia. According to Yastrzhembsky, Russia also may introduce simplified procedures for border crossings located along Georgia's autonomous republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
While critical of Russia's hard-line stance, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has urged patience. "We will have to clarify many points in relations with our big neighbor," Shevardnadze said in his weekly radio address November 27. "We will have to remain calm and maintain our dignity, I am confident that it will not turn into a tragic event."
Georgian and Russian officials are scheduled to resume talks on the base closure issue on December 15. Overall, Moscow maintains four bases in Georgia. They are:
The Gudauta base in Abkhazia. It includes armored infantry fighting vehicles (AIFV) and armored personnel carriers, 18 artillery systems and about 1,000 personnel.
The Vaziani military air base near Tbilisi. The facility also houses tanks and armored personnel carriers and about 1,500 personnel.
The Batumi base in the Ajarian autonomous republic. It has roughly 900 personnel. The Akhalkalaki base in southeastern Georgia, along the frontier with Armenia. This base is mostly populated with Armenians. The base is home to various armor and artillery units, totaling about 9,000 personnel. At the OSCE summit in Istanbul in November 1999, Russia gave assurances that it would close the Vaziani and Gudauta bases by July 2001. Georgia and Russia also pledged to negotiate a closure timetable for the other two bases. Moscow has withdrawn some military hardware, but talks aimed at finalizing the base closings have stalled.
Georgian officials have insisted that Russia adhere to its commitment to close the bases according to the established timetable. Moscow alternately has called for the Gudauta base to be transferred to the authority of the Russian-dominated peacekeeping force in Abkhazia. Russian officials also have cited financial difficulties in arguing for additional time to complete the closings. However, Georgian officials point out that the United States and Britain have offered to assume much of the costs incurred by the base closings.
Konstantin Kandelaki is affiliated with the International Center for Civic Culture in Tbilisi.