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CIS Visa Wars
In early November Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin made a televised announcement that Moscow was "to immediately start negotiations with Georgia and, possibly, Azerbaijan about introduction of visa requirements".
His words were initially interpreted as an emotional reaction to Georgia's refusal to co-operate with Russia's military campaign in Chechnya. In response to Moscow's accusations that Chechen rebel militants are being supplied with arms and ammunition across the Georgian-Chechen frontier, Georgia retaliated by announcing that Georgian forces would guard the 81 kilometre mountainous border. Tbilisi followed this up by accusing Moscow of trying to drag Georgia into the war in Chechnya. Russia's accusations against Azerbaijan and their involvement were of a similar nature, if less harsh.
It quickly became apparent, however, that the Kremlin's aggressive policy towards Georgia and Azerbaijan has long been planned. Preparations for the introduction of visa requirements began in early spring on the pretext of meeting "international legislative standards" for regulating the migration of cheap labour from the Caucasus to Russia--a migration that allegedly "badly affects the well-being of the Russian population". Russian Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, discreetly articulated this initiative during his tour of the Caucasus in September.
This "visa blow" caught Tbilisi and Baku unawares however, especially as it came with additional measures to control and prevent cash flow from Russia to these republics. The economic activity of the Georgian and Azeri communities in Russia (the latter numbers around 2 million people) generates as much revenue as their respective countries' national budgets. It is not surprising, therefore, officials in Baku and Tbilisi denounced Moscow's decisions as "steps in the wrong direction".
The Kremlin has hit out at the most sensitive spot on its "disobedient" CIS partners, punishing them for their stubborn, pro-Western orientation. NATO and EU membership remain a long way off for both republics, however, and Russia's tough measures will be yet another severe blow to their already weak and troubled economies. Pro-Russian opposition movements within both Georgia and Azerbaijan may yet exploit the continued economic and political weaknesses to their own advantage.
But Georgia and Azerbaijan do have their own 'aces' to play during the so-called "visa" talks. Georgia has already announced that it plans to control its own borders "all the way to the Black Sea", including Abkhazia. Baku meanwhile, has hinted that any visa regime may have implications for Russians living in Daghestan who currently pass freely to and fro visiting relatives in neighbouring Azerbaijan.
Turkmenistan set the precedent being the first CIS country to introducing visa requirements for citizens of the Commonwealth. Little attention was given to the matter at the time, but the country achieved its goal and now successfully prevents "unwelcome individuals" from entering its territory.
It would now appear that Russia too is no longer shy of demonstrating a wilful and overbearing attitude towards its southern neighbours. The CIS was once defined as a "form of civilised divorce" between the post-Soviet states. Those divorce proceedings appear to be progressing apace.
Arkady Dubnov is a journalist for newspaper Vremya MN, Moscow who covers the Caucasus.
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