"BREAKING OF THE WALL" -EU GRANTS VISA WAIVER
Investor.ge spoke with state minister for EU integration Viktor dolidze and political pundits about what this means for Georgia going forward
After a historic vote in Brussels on February 2, Georgians are now looking forward to closer relations with the EU.
Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili said the EU vote was "historic."
President Giorgi Margvelashvili also praised the EU vote, saying it will "reap results" for both Georgia and Europe.
MP Giorgi Kandelaki of the opposition European Georgia called the visa waiver a "breakthrough" and a "benefit that will change the lives and work of many of our compatriots, many young people, students and businessmen."
"This Day is Ours!"
The reaction in Tbilisi was jubilant.
City landmarks, like the TV antenna and the Peace Bridge over the Mtkvari River, were bathed in blue and yellow lights, in honor of the EU flag.
The city also hosted a free concert in the center of town to celebrate the vote.
"Congratulations to all with this day, congratulations to the whole Georgia!!!," one Tbilisian told Investor.ge.
"I would like to express my gratitude to all the people who have contributed to this process...Many people dedicated a lot of work and power behind the scenes. Do you know what makes me happy? In place of the connection with the Soviet Union, the saying 'Eh, there was a time when we could fly to Moscow for 24 rubles,', now we can say "We started travelling to Europe for 25 lari without visas.' We started the return to a large European family. This day is ours!"
"Europeanization of Georgians"
Tbilisi State University Professor Kornely Kachachia told Investor.ge that the biggest benefit from the waiver "is the opportunity Georgian citizens might have after visa-free travel, as it could enhance the Europeanization of the country by exposing ordinary Georgians to European culture, politics, business ethics, etc, as well as potentially, it could also strengthen political and economic links," he said.
"However, I'm afraid it will have an effect only in the long-term."
Vano Chkhikvadze, a specialist on European integration issues who works for Open Society Georgia, told Investor.ge that the visa waiver is important both politically and economically.
"It represents a message,breaking of the wall that was preventing contact. Of course, these restrictions only had a partial impact, but they affected the development of relations. And, in order to completely break down the wall, Georgia must become a member of the EU," he said.
The State Minister of the Issues into European and Euro Atlantic Structures, Viktor Dolidze, told Investor.ge that Georgia is "in the final stage" to receive visa-free travel to the EU.
"I don't want to speak about terms and dates, but I expect completion of the process in early spring, in March or April," he said, adding that the government is planning a "broad informational campaign" - designed to run across all major media outlets and on public transport and in public areas - to educate Georgians about what the new status means.
"In addition, we plan to conduct active informational campaigns in the regions. I personally plan to visit all the regions of Georgia.
We will conduct meetings with the population by segments. For example, we will devote one day to meeting students; the next day - with pensioners, and then with members of the business community.
We will focus our attention on the regions occupied by national minorities, and the high mountainous population," he said.
A Four-Year Process
The path to achieve visa-free status started in 2013, noted Chkhikvadze.
"Earlier we expected that Georgia could receive a visa regime in 2016. However, the main obstacle was bundling the question of Georgia's [visa-regime status] with other countries, from which there was a high risk of an increased number of asylum seekers," he told Investor.ge.
In particular, he noted the cases of Turkey and Ukraine.
"From its side, Georgia fulfilled all its obligations according to the Action Plan on Visa Liberalization and received a positive report as being ready in December 2015," he said.
He added that the EU's decision to improve the EU's mechanism for suspending the visa-free regime, which was caused by the increasing number of refugees and migrants over the past few years, also played a role.
No License to Work
"The most important thing that people should know is that this doesn't enable them to work in Europe," Chkhikvadze said.
"They may receive medical treatment, education, and travel in Europe. But they can't work there.
Opening of borders enables us to travel in Europe and to understand what the Europe is.
As for the EU, this makes it more popular."
"The visa-free regime will decrease the cost and level of the existing bureaucracy.
Liberalization of the visa regime will provide citizens of Georgia with significant advantages and it creates new opportunities for business.
This bilateral obligation is a large step forward from a political point of view, as well as for Georgia's economic integration with the EU," Dolidze said.
Dolidze noted that in Moldova, which was granted visa-free status in 2014, the status has encouraged residents of breakaway region of Transnistria to get Moldovan passports. "The experience of Moldova gives us the possibility to analyze the situation.
The visa-free regime is a very serious element for citizens residing in Abkhazia as well.
It means that after receiving a biometric passport from the Ministry of Justice of Georgia, our citizens living in Abkhazia may automatically travel in the countries of the EU.
The EU started a dialogue about the liberalization of the visa regime with Georgia in 2012.
In February of 2013, the European Commission presented an Action Plan for the liberalization of the visa regime with Georgia. This plan combined a number of spheres connected with issuing secure documents, managing borders and migration, mobility and asylym, and other issues, including fighting corruption and organized crime, protecting human rights and minority rights, and eliminating discrimination.
In December 2015, the European Commission submitted a report stating that Georgia had fulfilled all of the terms for the liberalization of the country's visa regime with the EU.
Georgia expected that the EU would implement a visa-free regime in the summer of 2016, but the decision was postponed in June.
Georgia entered into an Association Agreement with the EU in July 2016.
Georgia's EU Visa-Free Regime
Citizens of Georgia who have a biometric passport will have the opportunity to travel without a visa for short visits (90 days of stay within six months) in all 26 country members of the Schengen Agreement: Belgium, Italy, Denmark, France, Portugal, Sweden, Germany, Spain, Finland, Luxemburg, Greece, Iceland, Netherlands, Austria, Norway, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Switzerland, and Lichtenstein.
In addition, the visa-free regime will apply to four future member countries of the Schengen Agreement: Bulgaria, Cyprus, Romania, and Croatia.
Citizens of Georgia desiring to travel to Ireland and Great Britain will need to receive a visa for these two EU member states.
Georgia's Visa-Liberalization with the EU
To minimize the risk of being prohibited from entering the territory of the EU by European Border Police, citizens of Georgia, who very soon will be able to travel without a visa in Europe, must follow the following recommendations to use the visa-free regime:
- One must have have a distinct aim of one's visit (a business trip, tourism, visit to friends or relatives, education for up to 90 days) and be ready, upon the first demand of the Border Police, to inform them of the traveler's aim of arrival, planned travel route, and approximate term of stay;
- A traveler should carry all documents confirming the aim of his/her aim trip, which may be required by the Border Police: invitation, air ticket in both directions, hotel booking reservation number, a copy of the ID card of the person who invited the traveler and the telephone number and contact information of the inviting party, and medical insurance;
- A traveler must possess a biometric passport valid for a period of not less than six months;
- The lawful period for staying in the EU without a visa, consists of 90 days per six months;
- The possible penalty for remaining in the EU upon the expiration of the indicated lawful term of stay is a fine of of 3000 Euros and being banned from entering the Schengen zone for five years.