By Eka Janashia (10/27/2010 issue of the CACI Analyst)

From October 13, Georgia employs a visa-free regime for Russian citizens registered as residents of the North Caucasus. By simplifying trans-border communication with North Caucasians, Tbilisi seeks to improve its soft power against Russia. Whereas the initiative seems risky, Tbilisi may acquire certain benefits from it.

A decree signed by President Mikheil Saakshvili on October 11 imposes a 90-day visa-free entry regime for residents of Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia and the Republic of Adygea.

Previously, Russian citizens have been required to obtain a Georgian entry visa either at the Georgian interest section at the Swiss embassy or upon arrival at Tbilisi international airport. The Kazbegi – Zemo Larsi border crossing has not been issuing Georgian visas since it was reopened in March 2010. Thanks to the decree, residents of the North Caucasian republics no longer need to go to Moscow to obtain a Georgian visa.

The visa-free initiative is part of a broader Georgian strategy – “United Caucasus” – articulated by President Saakashvili at the UN General Assembly on September 23. “There is no North and South Caucasus, there is one Caucasus” in terms of culture and history. Common projects in education, culture, energy and civil society will launch “a historical move towards Caucasian unity” that does not aspire to change borders, he said. The abolishment of visa requirements for residents of the North Caucasus, therefore, should be understood in light of these statements.

Tbilisi claims that the decision was primarily dictated by the “humanitarian needs” of societies in both parts of the Caucasus. “...We have 100,000 Georgian citizens of Ossetian origin residing in Georgia and they have relatives in the North Caucasus, of course they need to see each other,” said the Georgian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Grigol Vashadze. Besides, the eased travel regulations are expected to divert North Caucasians from Moscow to Tbilisi where education and medical treatment will be more affordable for them. According to Vashadze, “we have been receiving letters from North Caucasus residents asking questions about how they can send their kids to Georgian universities”. Visitors from the North Caucasus will see the real image of Georgia, that it is not a state “which is constantly threatening neighbors” as falsely propagated by Russia, he said.

Beyond “humanitarian needs”, however, Moscow views the initiative as an attempt on Tbilisi’s part “to divide the population of Russia into various categories”, according to a statement by Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov. The Georgian side deliberately hauled the reopening of the Kazbegi – Zemo Larsi border crossing and now “[it] finds means to use this channel of communication for unscrupulous goals”. Russia views the step as a “provocation” given Tbilisi’s unilateral decision of to ease visa rules without discussing the issue with the Kremlin, Lavrov said.

In response to his Russian counterpart, Vashadze recalled that in 2000 Russia unilaterally imposed visa rules for Georgian citizens except residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while in 2003 Russia unilaterally simplified visa rules exclusively for residents of Georgia’s Adjarian Autonomous Republic. “So, never ask for something which you are not ready to provide”, the Georgian Foreign Minister said. reports that interviewed residents of Chechnya and Adygeya mostly reacted positively to the Georgian initiative. Nevertheless, some think that such opportunities should be provided for other citizens of the Russian Federation as well. Residents of Chechnya and Adygeya also voice concerns that the new opportunities will motivate Russia to toughen border crossing rules to prevent them from traveling to Georgia.

Georgian opposition politicians mention other risks that the initiative may generate. They argue that under the visa-free regime, North Caucasian militants will be able to penetrate into Georgia, which would constitute a security threat.

Despite the criticism of the initiative, there are clear political and commercial interests motivating the Georgian government. By competing with Moscow, Tbilisi aims to turn Georgia into a cultural and economic center of the Caucasus. Given Georgia’s negative trade balance, developing tourism is one of its economic priorities. In this sense, potential visitors from the North Caucasus may play a considerable role in encouraging export of goods and services. However, the major motivation behind the initiative is political. The aim is to turn Russia’s military victory in the 2008 Georgian-Russian war into a diplomatic and political defeat. In this respect, the “United Caucasus” aims to undermine the unity of the Russian Federation by designing instruments for soft power.

Moreover, by showing openness to the relatives of Abkhaz and Ossetians in the North Caucasus, Georgia seeks rebuild its image among the residents of the two breakaway regions. It seeks to convince them that Tbilisi is a “benign” alternative to “malign” Moscow, a postulation based on geography, history, culture, tradition, and socio-economic context.