Issue 6, 2015. December-January


"My Everything is Here"

Georgia has reversed some of its restrictive rules on visas and migration that it introduced in 2014. spoke with some of the country's nascent expat creative class about the impact the changes made on their businesses and their plans in Georgia.

Heather Yundt

When Georgia introduced new visa regulations in September 2014, tightening the rules on what was perhaps the most open visa system in the world, the backlash was fierce. Expats and business leaders went online to voice their concerns. Meanwhile, some longtime residents and their children were denied residency on the grounds of security, and foreign students coming to Georgia to start the school year were turned back at the airport.

The new rules revoked visa-free travel for more than a dozen countries, and visa-free stays were shortened from 360 days to 90 out of every 180 days. To stay longer, expats were required to apply for residency, handing over an unclear list of documents, including work contracts.

"I almost Left"

It was a blow to all expats working without long-term contracts — including creative professionals.

Thomas Burns, an American cinematographer, first came to the Caucasus in 1998 with a position at the Eurasia Foundation. He stayed on in Georgia, writing and editing for Tbilisi Pastimes, an English-language expat magazine. It was through his experience in Georgia that he discovered his passion: visual storytelling.

His career took him to Los Angeles, working as a cinematographer for feature films, TV dramas and music videos.

But Georgia stayed on his mind. After returning as a Fulbright Scholar in 2009, Burns made the leap and returned to Georgia in 2014, this time to stay.

He says Georgia was a place where he felt he could grow as a cinematographer.

"I really enjoy Georgians' visual sensibility. It's very fresh for me," he says. "Their approach to a story is a little bit different than what you see in Hollywood, and that expands my worldview on what I do. It helps my craft."

It's also cheap. According to Mercer's 2015 Cost of Living ranking, Tbilisi sits among the ten cheapest cities in the world for expats.

Since returning, Burns's plans have evolved. He recently opened Spectra Post, a color correction studio, and plans to color productions remotely for North American and European clients, as well as for local productions.

But it almost didn't happen.

The new visa rules came into effect soon after Burns arrived in the country. Though he tried to follow the rules, he was sent from ministry to ministry and official to official. No one knew the answers. He ended up spending thousands of dollars to fly back to the U.S. to get a visa that would allow him to apply for temporary residency.

"I almost left," he says. "It was incredibly frustrating."

"Of course when you're a creative professional, you work from project to project. There's no such thing as a long-term contract."

Burns wasn't alone in his frustration. The outcry led to an apology from Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili and months of parliamentary debate and amendments. In June, amendments came into effect that reinstated 360-day visas for most countries.

"It was going to be my land"

But not all expats have felt the relief.

In Tbilisi's Dry Bridge Park, dozens of local artists show off their work to tourists and locals.

Among the stalls hangs a series of watercolor street scenes of Tbilisi. They belong to Mimo Mondal, a painter from Bangladesh who first came to Georgia in 2011. After studying at Bangladesh's art academy, Mondal worked at the Russian Center of Science and Culture in Dhaka, the country's capital, before deciding the structure was not for him. He was bored and wanted a change.

"It's like prison. I wanted freedom," he says.

Mondal had heard about Georgia through a friend and decided to give it a shot. He says he has since fallen in love with the country: the architecture, the old buildings, the countryside.

And he's had success. Mondal is a member of the Georgian Artists Union. His work has been part of several exhibitions in Georgia, including a solo exhibition. He has also appeared on local TV programs.

But things changed for Mondal in 2014. Though as a Bangladeshi, Mondal previously needed visas, when the new rules came into effect, he gathered his documents and applied again. Despite getting recommendations from the Ministry of Culture and The Georgian Artists Union, he says he was denied a visa four times.

Mondal is particularly upset by this because he sees himself as an ambassador for Georgia through his paintings of Georgian scenes, which have been sold internationally.

"It was going to be my land," he says. "My everything is here."

It's unclear just how many expats live in Tbilisi, let alone expats who are in creative industries. Without concrete statistics, it is impossible to know exactly how much the changing visa rules have affected the expat creative community.

For now, Mondal continues to show his work at the Dry Bridge market.

"People are really warm. They really love my paintings," he says. "Everyone knows me in this garden. They are good people, good artists, good friends."

Ultimately, Mondal says he wants to stay in Georgia because, like for many creative professionals, Georgia is where he feels inspired.

"Do Something for this country"

Like Mondal, Maria Shirshova also found inspiration in Georgia — in the country's own young artists.

The Russian national first came to Tbilisi with her husband, as a professional in the field of creative advertising.

But one day in 2010 changed everything. She went to meet a model for a creative calendar for a commercial job at the Tbilisi Art Academy.

There she met talented young artists who didn't have much money. She decided to help them.

She started looking for ways to promote them abroad by sending around their portfolios and helping them craft their artistic statements.

In addition to cultural management projects, she has big plans to continue to help Georgian artists, such as creating a hub where artists can find the assistance they need to locate residencies.

"I have to do something for this country. I really want to do something for society and I think I can do more for Georgia than for Russia," Shirshova says. "My heart is here, my place is here."