Russia is relaxing its visa requirements for Georgians, possibly trumping the European Union’s best card in the ongoing game of influence between the two powers.
“The Russian side confirmed its readiness to continue the liberalization of the visa regime for Georgian citizens visiting Russia,” the Russian foreign ministry announced in a November 19 précis of the latest bout of talks between Moscow and Tbilisi. Georgian officials confirmed that efforts are in progress to ease travel for their citizens to Russia, even though the two countries remain irreconcilably at odds over the location of Georgia’s borders.
Georgia ended its diplomatic relations with Russia after the 2008 war over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
The visa-liberalization announcement came two days after Georgia went to Brussels for talks about visa-free travel to the European Union. The prospect of visa exemption, largely contingent on Georgia’s ability to keep illegal migration in check, is seen as the major impetus for keeping the Caucasus country on track to closer integration with Europe.
Visa-liberalization had been seen as a chance for Brussels to present a tangible benefit of Georgia’s EU alignment. In explaining Russia’s announcement, Georgian State Minister for European Integration Davit Bakradze emphasized that the talks with Moscow are centered on simplification, rather than cancelation of the visa regime.
“But given that hundreds of thousands of Georgian nationals reside in Russia, we believe there is a significant interest toward the matter,” Bakradze said.
As an example of the liberalization trend, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigoriy Karasin, Moscow’s point man for talks with Tbilisi, cited simplified procedures for granting visas to Georgian drivers, the state-run TASS reported. He said that the only operable Georgia-Russian border checkpoint, the Lars passing high in the Caucasus mountainous, is now open round-the-clock to admit vehicles from Georgia.
Russians don’t need a visa to travel to Georgia. Though they have no official diplomatic ties, Moscow and Tbilisi have two channels for security and trade talks.
Initially, many Georgians welcomed this dialogue with Russia, formerly a key economic market, but there are growing worries among some that Moscow is taking the wind out of Georgia’s pro-Western sails. Pro-Western activists held another rally in Tbilisi on November 19 to protest Georgia’s talks with Gazprom about purchases of Russian gas.
An August poll for the Washington,DC-based National Democratic Institute showed that support for EU integration still outpaces that for joining Moscow's counter-project, the Eurasian Union, but has slightly slackened since 2014.