On February 18, at the 53rd Munich Security Conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov addressed the issue of Russia-Georgia travel, saying that since Georgia is becoming a transit route for extremists, a visa-free status for Georgia could only be considered after improved law enforcement relations between the two countries.
Georgia allows Russia unfettered access into Georgia while Russia requires Georgians to obtain a visa.
Lavrov said that in the absence of direct diplomatic relations with Tbilisi, it would be difficult to negotiate a visa waiver program with Georgia.
He added that “this is also connected with a necessity of ensuring security, when not only Central Asia, but also the Trans-Caucasus, regions of the South Caucasus are becoming routes, which insurgents, extremists, terrorists and drug traffickers are actively trying to use.”
While Lavrov referred to Georgia in describing a dire security environment in the South Caucasus, Georgian officials and security experts say his claim has no merit when it comes to Georgia.
Zurab Abashidze, Georgia’s special representative for relations with Russia, told the press: “Last year we had a record high number of tourists, around one million tourists from Russia. This number, and the fact that foreign tourists feel comfortable in Georgia, is a confirmation that the level of security is high in Georgia.”
Lavrov’s claim “is inaccurate with respect to Georgia and we cannot accept it,” he said.
If Georgia is such a high transit point for terrorists, why did the European Parliament vote in a landslide this month to back visa-free travel for Georgian citizens to 30 European countries, Georgian officials ask?
One of the conditions of attaining visa-free status with the EU was for Georgia to improve security in the country, which Georgia satisfied before Brussels granted it this status.
“The trust that the European Union expressed through granting the visa-free movement is a clear proof that Georgia is a secure country,” Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Davit Dondua told reporters in Munich on February 21.
Analysts contacted by Polygraph.info say that the security situation in Georgia is not as dire as Lavrov described and that he inaccurately tied Georgia to terrorism issues in the South Caucasus.
They said that while Georgia – like other nations in the region – faces challenges from radical insurgents and drug smuggling, the potential outside threat is not as great as from other neighboring countries.
Michael Cecire, a regional analyst from the New America Foundation, told Polygraph.info that there is an “inherent self-contradiction” in Lavrov’s comparison of Georgia with Central Asia. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan already have a visa-free status with Russia.
“Russia maintains visa-free regimes with states that have serious internal security problems,” Cecire said. “Ironically, the regions of Georgia that are most widely regarded as hotspots for trafficking and criminality are Abkhazia and South Ossetia – separatist regimes that are recognized by Moscow.”
In a 2016 annual terrorism report, the U.S. State Department wrote that “Georgia took steps to improve border security and counter the financing of terrorism.” The report said that “overall, the Georgian government is largely capable of detecting, deterring, and responding to terrorism incidents, despite challenges to cooperation, communication, and information sharing.”
And as for claims of Georgia exporting terrorists, Georgia’s representative to Russia told reporters: “As far as we know, around 2,000 citizens of Russia have gone to Syria and Iraq.”
This compares to Georgian government estimates that 50 to 100 Georgian nationals are fighting for IS or al-Qaida affiliates in Syria and Iraq, Abashidze said.
The Kremlin may be using the visa-free travel issue as political leverage to pressure the Georgian government to enter into closer security and diplomatic relations with Russia, analysts said.
Kornely Kakachia, director of the Georgian Institute of Politics, told Polygraph.info that Russia is more concerned about Georgia’s getting closer to the West than it is with security threats.
“Last year almost one million Russian tourists visited Georgia and the Russian MFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) never complained about security concerns,” Kakachia said.
Moscow is using the visa-free travel as a political tool to “put pressure on Georgia aimed at persuading it to restore broken diplomatic relations with Russia and acknowledge so called ’new realties’ on the ground, such as an ‘independent’ Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” Kakachia said.
Georgia broke diplomatic ties with Russia after the 2008 Russia-Georgia war.
In the 1990s, at the height of the Chechen wars with Russia, Russia and Georgia had a visa-free regime.
Russia imposed visa requirements on Georgia in 2000, citing a “terrorist threat” due to a surge of Chechen refugees, who were fleeing Chechnya as Russia was fighting its second war against Chechen nationalists.
Experts say the security environment in Georgia is significantly more stable than it was in the late 1990s.