Any time a group of ex-pats gathered in Tbilisi this summer, the discussion would inevitably turn to Georgia’s new restrictive visa regulations. Mostly people wanted to know if any of their compatriots had any new information to share about the new required registration process. Under the previous government, almost anyone could come and stay in the country for an extended period of time (nearly a year) without going through a registration process. In addition, opening a business required little initial start-up costs. This made the country attractive to foreigners from countries as far apart as Iran and the United States. Tbilisi was becoming a cultural capital where people of varying nations and backgrounds could meet freely without many of the restrictions placed by their governments.
That all changed this year when Georgia’s parliament passed a law restricting free travel to their country. The reason given was that Georgia was becoming more European, and that they were required to comply with European Union regulations in order to receive visa ‘liberalization’ when making short trips to European Union countries [see video below].
However, the law is a morass of contradictions, and even the so-called explanation that eventually emerged months after the law was passed was so convoluted as to be virtually unintelligible.
The law itself is not the only problem. The way the law has been implemented has been a disaster. The excuses that the government is still making about how civil servants are still feeling their way through the process are inexcusable. The first discussions of the law took place in late 2013. The law was passed in March of this year, and was scheduled to be implemented by 1 September 2014. One week before the stated deadline, Georgia’s Foreign Ministry was still scrambling to clarify what the law said. People who went to register were turned away, and told they did not need to register. When they were allowed to register, they were told certain additional documents were needed (even though the law did not require it). One individual spent an exorbitant amount of money to get documents sent from their home country, only to return to the office with said papers, and be told that they were not necessary.
The bureaucratic aggravations faced by ex-pats with passports from places such as the European Union, the United States, and Canada, were nothing compared to the problems faced by nationals from countries not on that list. Citizens from hotspots like Syria, and Iraq had their applications denied despite meeting the requirements laid out in the law. Students from Nigeria have started a petition requesting the government amend the law to make it easier for them to acquire visas (they have been told they must return home to do so).
Meanwhile, it is becoming clear that there may be other factors at play. Residents of Georgia who are ethnically Armenian have been given false information about their options, and thousands have had their applications for permanent residency denied (it is worth noting that I have not heard of one individual who has gotten approval for permanent residency).
Of course, every country has the right to limit who it allows in. They also have the right to dictate the terms and length of stay. The United States and many other European nations are restrictive about who they allow in. However, the country of Georgia does not have the luxury that places like the United States and Europe have. For better or worse, most people are not rushing to get to Georgia to live. The people who went to Georgia had either a previous interest in it, or they went because it was an easy place to live.
The new law is damaging Georgia and its reputation on the world stage. It is also causing problems internally and with its neighbors. Where this will end is unclear, but it is worth monitoring.