Sunday

20th Jan 2019

Opinion

EU visa policy endangers Georgia peace effort

When civil war broke out in Abkhazia, Georgia, 14 years ago, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Georgians were forced to flee their homes. The majority packed just a few personal belongings, since they were told they would be abe to return in a few days. Nearly a generation has passed since then and those 300,000 refugees remain scattered throughout Georgia, still waiting to go back.

As the world stood silent in the face of their plight, they tried to piece together their broken lives. A few sought to build their futures outside of Georgia, but the large majority held onto their Georgian passports in the hope of ultimately going home - to mind their orchards, to properly bury their dead, and to heal the wounds of the brutal war together with their Abkhaz kin and neighbors.

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  • Ms Samadashvili standing by the Georgian flag (Photo: Georgian embassy)

But instead, on June 1, they received another reminder that the world remains indifferent to their struggle. That was the day that an agreement between the European Union and Russia on visa facilitation entered into force. What this means is that those residents of Abkhazia who had kept their homes and agreed to accept illegal Russian passports - over 80 percent of the current population of Abkhazia, Georgia - are now able to travel relatively easily to the EU. But the 300,000 refugees who were forced to flee and those who did not succumb to Russia's illegal passportization campaign receive no such benefit. In the absence of a similar agreement between Georgia and the EU, the refugees will be punished - once again - for their dutiful adherence to the law.

The relationship between Georgia and the EU has grown considerably stronger in the years since the 2003 Rose Revolution ushered in a government committed to vigorous democratic reforms and support for the West. The last round of EU expansion extended the EU's borders to the Black Sea, a region of growing importance as a transit corridor for Central Asian energy being brought to European markets.

A wave of democratization is bringing states in the region closer to the European family of nations. All have urged the EU to strengthen its engagement in the region. The signing of a European Neighborhood Policy Action Plan last November marked a new phase in EU-Georgia relations. The declared objective of the ENP is to offer Georgia the "prospective of moving beyond cooperation to a significant degree of integration, including through a stake in the EU's internal Market and gradual extension of four freedoms to Georgia."

Trade is one issue of vital importance of Georgia. We hope that the fast pace of our economic reforms, which has led the World Bank to name Georgia as the number-one reformer in the world, and our strong economic growth will be rewarded by a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU. Despite a trade embargo imposed during the last eight months by the Russian Federation, Georgia's economy is growing by nearly 10 percent and foreign direct investment is doubling every year - it is expected to reach about €1.5 billion in 2007 and is spread across diverse sectors. A free trade agreement with the EU will help us to consolidate our reforms and bring the process of standards harmonization and technical convergence to a successful completion.

Building a secure neighbourhood for all of us is an equally important objective for the Georgian government. Therefore cooperation on border and migration issues, as well as working together with the European Union to strengthen security on all our borders - including in the conflict regions - takes on central importance in our agenda. A dialogue on visa and migration issues is a natural and central part of the EU-Georgia ENP Action Plan. The Commission Communication on Strengthening the ENP, released last December, underscores the importance of cooperation in the area of freedom of movement across the borders of the EU and its neighbors.

Our country is making serious progress on a series of issues that matter deeply to the EU and that enable a simplified visa regime: Georgia's judiciary and criminal-justice systems are undergoing deep reforms, its border management is the best in this neighborhood, and it is committed to fighting human trafficking and illegal migration. Even in the absence of an EU-Russia agreement on visa facilitation, our country would merit the speedy negotiation of a similar agreement. However, for the reasons outlined above, the issue has acquired vital political importance - not only for Georgia, but also for the European Union. By rewarding separatist forces with a visa facilitation agreement, we are strengthening their hand and dimming the prospects for conflict resolution.

Unwittingly, the EU is creating incentives for ethnic engineering and creeping annexation through the illegal distribution of passports by one country to the residents of a neighboring state. This a terrible and dangerous precedent. Meanwhile, 300,000 Georgian refugees are still waiting for justice to triumph so they can finally return home. It will take the dedicated and long-term joint efforts of Georgia and the EU to fulfill that dream. But for the moment, the only way to avoid subjecting them to injustice yet again is the immediate commencement of negotiations between the EU and Georgia on a visa facilitation agreement.

The author is Georgia's ambassador to the EU

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