Zurab Matcharadze, Georgian journalist, correspondent of ‘Rezonansi’ newspaper
Today the European Parliament voted in favor of granting the citizens of Georgia the right to 90 days visa to Schengen zone. I do not know about the European Union, but for Georgia it is a historic decision, being the only tangible result for a regular citizen of the country to the Euro-Atlantic integration.
This road was long. In June 2005 Georgia unilaterally abolished visa requirements for EU citizens, but the dialogue with the EU on visa liberalization started only in June 2012.
Today the Georgians support the government’s course towards European integration, but unfortunately the economic situation does not leave much space for enthusiasm. Despite the economic growth, the rate of the national currency – lari to euro has fallen by 40%, subsequently the tourist trip will no longer be an affordable leisure. Having in mind that between Georgia and the EU there is already a functioning Association Agreement, and a comprehensive and free trade agreements, for the representatives of business the visa-free will be an asset in reaching out to potential partners. Having in mind the thousands of Georgians citizens living in the EU for their relatives it will be an enormous relieve to visit family freely.
However in short-term the visa-free will not have a decisive influence on the mood in society, perhaps, it will not even strengthen the pro-Western sentiment. Moldova is an example, where a visa-free regime with the EU is already in force, but the country has chosen the election of a pro-Russian president.
From the other hand the visa-free will neutralise expanding anti-Western propaganda, which represents European values as hostile to the Georgian identity. From now onwards, everyone will be able to travel and to see the “decadent West.”
The decision of visa-free removed a huge problem that could harm relations between Georgians and European. Europeans ought to understand that to a large extent the public opinion is shaped by the presence or absence of sense of injustice.
Georgia believes that the visa-free, although not associated directly with the issues, but was honestly ‘earned’ by Georgian peace-keeping in Afghanistan and Kosovo, with the assistance to EU crisis management in Africa. A regular Georgian citizen believes they have earned it. But after all the agreed criteria for the visa-free, and the failure of some of the EU member-states to adopt a decision without referring to halt mechanism, linking Georgia to the migration crisis, although so far not one illegal migrant had claimed the asylum, or a blown out of proportion problem of Georgian crime, these issues made a Georgian man in the street felt, that he is treated by Europe unfairly.
In Georgia, the older generation has some “bright” memories about the Soviet times, when they could fly to Moscow for 37 rubles just to dine. Today the price on flights to Europe starts from 19.99 euros, meaning that for pro-European-minded youth it opens a window of opportunities, and for more older, more skeptical and nostalgic public, reminiscent of their “Soviet Motherland” visa-free can mean a revival of a good old tradition of food tourism. Bon appétit!