Georgia erupted in jubilation today as EU lawmakers approved visa-free access for Georgian citizens, a prize Tbilisi has long sought.
The former Soviet republic hopes that the short-stay visa waiver becomes a major step toward eventual full membership in the European Union.
Amid a perception that illiberalism is gaining traction in the region, the news gave embattled advocates of liberal values reason to cheer.
“Congratulations! This a truly historic day!” tweeted Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili after the European Parliament voted to drop visa requirements for short-term visits to the Schengen Zone, the common travel space covering most of the European continent.
A screen was set up in Georgia’s parliament to watch live as the European Parliament voted on the visa waiver bill. After the legislation passed, Georgian legislators celebrated with champagne and EU-and-Georgia-themed cake.
Georgian leaders took turns to thank the European Parliament for supporting the legislation, which faced a headwind from skeptics who argued that liberalization would expose the EU to potential terrorism and illegal labor migration from Georgia. “The European Union has opened its doors to Georgian citizens just as it is facing major immigration challenges,” said Vice Speaker of Parliament Tamar Chugoshvili, of the ruling Georgian Dream party, in televised comments.
The waiver is expected to enter into force late in March, after what the European Parliament described as “formal” approval by the Council of Ministers, and the enactment of a suspension mechanism, which would allow for a swift reintroduction of visas in case of a migration surge.
On the practical level, the waiver will spare Georgian travelers 35 euros – the cost of a short-stay EU visa – and the additional fees charged by visa application-processing agencies, and also the time spent queuing for visas and collecting application documents.
Georgians will have to present some of these documents, such as return tickets, proof of accommodation, and travel insurance at the border.
More broadly, the move is seen as a real promise to escape the destiny of being a post-Soviet country held under Russia’s thumb, and achieve EU-style democracy and prosperity. “Georgia has never been so close to Europe,” said Mamuka Mdinaradze, parliament member from Georgian Dream. “What is most important is that Georgia is little by little, step by step, becoming a member of the European family.”
Georgia’s social media went ablaze with memes of Sulkhan Saba Orbeliani, a 17th century writer and diplomat, whose arduous diplomatic missions to the Vatican and France have become a symbol of Georgia’s centuries-old aspiration to be allied with Europe. “He waited for visa liberalization before it was cool,” memes went, some portraying Orbeliani boasting of a passport with a Schengen visa.
The celebratory mood spread across party lines with the opposition United National Movement and its offshoot, European Georgia, welcoming the news. “This is not just about the freedom of movement, this is a benefit that will change the lives of many of our citizens, the lives of our young people, students and businesspeople,” said Giorgi Kandelaki of European Georgia.
Patriots’ Alliance, the parliament’s smallest party, and often cast as Moscow-friendly, struck a slightly different note by expressing the hope that Russia will follow the EU’s suit and eliminate visas for Georgian citizens.
Otherwise, the main political parties vied to claim the credit for the visa waiver. Members of the UNM and European Georgia reminded citizens that the visa liberalization process was initiated during their rule, before the Georgian Dream came to power.
“Many mocked me, both in the country and abroad, when we played the anthem of the European Union in front of the Georgian Parliament after the Rose Revolution and, for the first time, raised the European Union flag,” former president Mikhail Saakashvili said in a videotaped statement. “However, I fundamentally believed that Georgia would move quickly toward European integration and that indeed happened after 2006.”
The visa waiver marks the second major European-integration success to occur on Georgian Dream’s watch. In 2014, the signing of an association agreement and a concomitant free trade deal launched the process of political and economic harmonization between Georgia and the EU.
Georgia’s current president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, gave credit to both Georgian Dream and the UNM. He also expressed hope that visa liberalization will incentivize residents of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia to seek Georgian citizenship to benefit from the waiver.