One week after the European Parliament granted Georgia visa-free access to the European Union, the South Caucasus country has entered into a rivalry with Russia over laying a road to the EU for breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Parliament’s February 2 approval of the visa-free plan marks a big leap forward for Georgia in its long journey from the Soviet Union into Europe, and it wants its Russian-backed separatists to get Georgian passports and come along for the ride.
The separatists have dismissed Tbilisi’s advances as wishful thinking, but it appears that Moscow, which recognizes Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, and provides them with military and economic support, was put on guard.
It claims it can trump Tbilisi’s offer by convincing the EU to start accepting the breakaway regions’ own passports for travel.
In a February 7 remark, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin half-heartedly welcomed the EU’s decision to exempt Georgia from short-stay visas as a “positive act,” but advised that the EU should next start accepting visa applications from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and “abandon its restrictions” for their “citizens.” Moscow, he said, will raise the matter with Brussels soon.
This might be the emptiest promise Moscow could make to its protectorates, as the EU is fairly strict about its policy of not recognizing the statehood of the Russian-backed breakaway regions.
It also is hardly in Moscow’s interest to let go of the two territories’ tight ties with Russia, which has backed separatism – in Ukraine, as well – as a way to curb the EU’s influence in the post-Soviet space.
But with this promise, Moscow did underscore to Abkhazia and South Ossetia its role as the allegedly sole international champion of their interests. Perhaps it also belied any concern that there might be something to Tbilisi’s bet that the EU relaxing its borders for Georgia can help the country move toward mending its own, separatist-severed borders.
Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili said last week that “[d]rawing closer to Europe is something that belongs to all of Georgia, and we are happy that our Abkhazian and Ossetian citizens will join us in enjoying every benefit offered by close relations with Europe.”
The pair’s de-facto leaders angrily responded to Kvirikashvili that they won’t fall for the bait. “If Georgian leaders are truly concerned about the freedom of movement of Abkhazia’s citizens, they should drop the policy of international isolation of our citizens,” Abkhazia’s de-facto foreign ministry said. South Ossetia followed suit, describing the passport lure as “twisted logic.” Both regions said that Tbilisi’s latest enticement campaign is doomed to the same failure as in the past.
Previously, Tbilisi tried to tempt the breakaways with access to medical care, shopping, services, movies, and, even, the 70s-hit European disco-band Boney M. At best, it resulted in a modest and little publicized flow of traffic into Georgian-controlled territory.
Whether the temptation of access to shopping, studying and business deals in the EU will prove any more alluring remains to be seen.
A road to the EU, though, must first go through the barrier of the two regions’ fierce hostility toward anything Georgian, and, in South Ossetia’s case, an actual fence built by Russia to carve the territory out of Georgia.
Still, if the Abkhaz and South Ossetians don’t opt to apply for Georgian passports and make the trip, there might just be some others ready to take their place.
One Russian TV station joked that, to travel as tourists to the EU without the bother of visas, Russians themselves might be tempted to get Georgian passports.