Government leaders in Tbilisi are scrambling to address Germany’s stated concerns that granting Georgians visa-free entry to the European Union could lead to higher crime rates.
The EU's economic engine, Germany, reportedly took the lead last week in seeking to delay agreement on easing Schengen-zone travel requirements for Georgia.
At a June 15 meeting, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili tried to assure German Chancellor Angela Merkel that scrapping short-term visas for Georgians will not result in a new social headache for Berlin. “We believe that we will achieve a mutual understanding in this process,” said Kvirikashvili at a joint press conference with Merkel in Berlin.
For good measure, he invited Merkel to Tbilisi; the plans have not been confirmed yet.
Kvirikashvili’s cabinet and political team are under pressure to secure the much-promised EU visa waiver ahead of Georgia’s October 8 parliamentary elections. Presumably, Tbilisi would want Merkel’s visit to occur before that vote. If secured, a visa waiver could prove a big vote-getter for the incumbent Georgian Dream coalition.
Merkel assured Kvirikashvili that Germany is not opposed to the visa-free plan as such, but, rather, wants to see precautionary measures in place first, namely a way to suspend the visa waiver program if another immigration crisis hits Germany.
“We regard visa liberalization in the context of the suspension mechanism,” Merkel said, adding that “this is not necessarily connected to Georgia.”
“In combination with the suspension mechanism, the [visa-liberalization] decision will be taken in favor of Georgia,” Agenda.ge reported Merkel as saying. The chancellor did not, however, specify the EU’s timeline for adopting this decision.
The recent influx of refugees from war-ravaged Syria has boosted anti-immigrant sentiments across Germany. More recently, German law enforcement officials have claimed that scrapping short-term visas for Georgia, Ukraine and Kosovo could result in a spike in crimes by immigrants.
Mass media has painted a negative picture of Georgian migrants of late. German news reports have highlighted alleged Georgian mafia operations in Germany and burglaries committed by Georgian asylum seekers.
In reality, the Georgian crime rate in Germany lags behind that of citizens from Turkey, Syria, and even EU members Romania and Poland, but can be seen as high relative to Georgia’s population size (about 3.72 million people). According to German police statistics, legal and illegal aliens from Georgia were suspected of committing 8,085 crimes overall in 2015. Nationals from Georgia’s immediate, comparatively sized neighbors, Armenia and Azerbaijan, do not even feature in the crime records.
Theft seems to be the most prevalent type of crime committed by Georgian citizens in Germany. With an overall number of 3,838 suspects taken into custody in 2015, Georgians came in fourth after Albanians (6,689), Algerians (5,611) and Serbians (4,699) in the category of foreign nationals accused of theft.
Georgians – from officials to immigrants, and some of the offenders themselves – contend that a visa waiver will not change much about reported Georgian crimes in Germany. Illegal migrants from Georgia use underground courier services to smuggle themselves into the EU, crossing mainly from Turkey, rather than trying their luck with applying for visas.
“Even if they cancel the visas, I am not going to just show up at the German border with my passport, as nobody’s going to let me in,” one Georgian citizen, who was expelled from the EU twice for shoplifting and illegal border-crossing, told EurasiaNet.org. “I will do what I did before: cross the border on foot, or make fake documents.”
Some of those who chose the legal route to enter the EU say that they have tricked consular services with fictitious employment or income letters to get an EU visa and then overstay their allowed visit.
If visa liberalization goes through, short-term visitors from Georgia will need to present at the EU’s Schengen Zone border point the same collection of documents that they now bring to EU consulates in Georgia. This usually includes a roundtrip ticket, hotel booking, and proof of income and employment. EU border officials will have discretion to refuse entry at the border.
One German teacher for migrants to Germany, including Georgians, said that many Georgian migrants apply for political asylum just to gain extra time in the country. “They know they will be expelled eventually, but all the legal and bureaucratic procedures for reviewing the asylum application can last for over a year, so, in the meantime, they go stealing or peddling drugs,” claimed the woman, who asked not be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic.
Silvia Stöber, a German journalist investigating the workings of Georgian gangs in Germany, said that scrapping visa-liberalization plans will not fix the crime problem, but will be perceived in Georgia as unfair, collective punishment of all Georgians.
“The Georgians, who engaged in … criminal activity until now have found other ways to travel to Germany and many are even in possession of the Schengen visa,” Stöber said. She advocates closer collaboration between the Georgian and German law enforcement authorities. Steps are being taken in this direction: Tbilisi now has a police attaché in Berlin to help German law enforcement agencies tackle suspected crimes by Georgians.
Stöber also believes that the German government should recognize Georgia as a safe country, a designation that would block Georgians from seeking asylum in Germany.
The delay in EU visa liberalization is seen in Tbilisi as a blow to Georgia’s efforts to integrate with Western security and economic institutions. As such, it offers a PR windfall to an expanding, homegrown pro-Russia movement.
Jaba Devdariani, editor of Clarion, a site that explores concepts of “Europeanness,” said that granting visa liberalization for Georgia is a key step to the EU’s own goal of promoting EU-style democracy across its eastern neighborhood. “Georgia is a litmus test for the success of pro-Western policies in Europe’s Eastern neighbourhood,” wrote Devdariani in a commentary for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Citizens in many former Soviet republics do not tend to view the Baltic states as a model for European integration. “But the progress achieved by once notoriously corrupt Georgia can serve as an iconic proof of hope,” Devdariani asserted.
For now, the signs are mixed whether Angela Merkel and the rest of the EU ultimately agree.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi. He is a frequent contributor to EurasiaNet.org's Tamada Tales blog.