Georgia hopes that visa-free access to the EU will help secure its dream of recognition as "part of Europe."
Easter brings to Tbilisi the blessing of fewer people and less traffic, but also a certain smugness. With rural transplants heading out of town to visit family or family graves, natives of the Georgian capital can’t help expressing a snobbish satisfaction about the “villagers” having gone back to the village, if only for a few days.
Yet now that Georgians can visit the European Union visa-free, one running joke in Tbilisi has it that the EU will soon be similarly relieved to see Georgians leave for Easter.
Bandied about online is an imaginary Facebook conversation among EU leaders talking like snooty Tbilisians. “Anyone know when Easter is going to be this year?” asks European Council President Donald Tusk in Georgian. “Tell me about it. I just love it when the cities empty out,” responds German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “They used to leave for New Year’s, but they don’t anymore,” Tusk says wistfully. “Haha, didn’t I tell you this is going to happen?” gloats French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, speaking in Russian, the language of her alleged Kremlin-linked financiers, and using the name of her famous father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. “You’ve got what you deserved! You’ve ruined Europe!”
Jokes aside, as economic hardship continues to drive Georgians abroad, a risk persists that some may try and overstay their visits to the EU in search of work. If this happens on a large scale, the EU, already struggling with a refugee crisis, reserves the right to cancel its historic decision.
Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, who took the first visa-free flight to the EU on March 28, called for using this new opportunity responsibly. “This is a great accomplishment that is to be treated carefully, especially in the initial period,” Kvirikashvili advised, cautioning his fellow citizens not to damage their country’s reputation by staying in the EU longer than the three months allowed under the new rules. Visitors from Georgia can now stay in the EU for a total of 180 days a year, but each visit should not last more than 90 days.
But, so far, no signs suggest that Georgians plan to pack up en masse and move to the EU.
Georgia does not top the charts for illegal aliens in the EU. Just 5,000 Georgian illegals were recorded for 2015, the latest year for which EU data is available. (In Germany, a popular destination for Georgian labor migrants, less than 7 percent of the country’s roughly 22,000 Georgian residents overstayed their welcome that year. )
That said, for a country of less than 4 million people, Georgia has produced significant numbers of would-be migrants. Petitioning for asylum to escape alleged rights abuses has long been one tactic Georgians use to “stay or work in Europe as long as they could,” commented Marc Hulst, program coordinator at the Georgian mission of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
“For years, Georgia had been in the top 20 (even top ten at times) of countries asking for . . . asylum in the EU,” Hulst said. The number of Georgians seeking asylum in the EU peaked in 2012 with 12,000 applications, according to the IOM.
The refugee crisis, though, has dramatically changed the EU’s migration picture. Asylum applications from Georgia now seem modest compared to last year’s tally of roughly 340,000 applications from Syria and about half that from Afghanistan.
With EU-backed reforms, it also has become harder for Georgians to make a convincing claim of persecution. France has been the top European destination for Georgian refugees, according to UNHCR data, but the French government now officially recognizes Georgia as a country that respects democracy and civil rights.
Nonetheless, there are potential workarounds. If need be, Hulst speculates, illegal workers from Georgia may opt to come and go within their 180-day allotment.
But both Georgia and the EU are taking precautions to make sure visa liberalization does not become a one-way street. Georgian and EU government agencies now cooperate more tightly on exchanging information about visitors, running background-checks, expediting the return of illegals, and enforcing migration laws.
For all of Georgia’s humorous online animations and video-loops about Georgians flooding into the EU, Brussels officials themselves expect nothing of the kind. In a report last year, the European Commission said it expects a spike in travel between Georgia and the EU, but no mass migration.
This year will be the test for that expectation. The picture will be clearer, come next Easter.