Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Visa Threat Spurs Georgia into Action

Russia's plans to introduce visa regulations for Georgia are directly linked to claims that Chechen rebels are taking refuge in the former Soviet republic
By Mikhail Ivanov

In the climax of a bitter war of words between Moscow and Tbilisi, the Kremlin has confirmed that, as of December 5, Georgian citizens will need a visa to enter the Russian Federation.

The announcement quashes a recent statement by President Eduard Shevardnadze who claimed the policy change had been delayed by three months. In fact, the three-month "grace" is merely aimed at giving Georgians living in Russia (and Russians living in Georgia) time to obtain their visas.

The introduction of visa regulations is likely to deliver a crippling blow to the Georgian economy. Around 500,000 Georgians currently work in Russia, bringing home an estimated $1.5 billion annually. The cynical ORT TV host, Mikhail Leontiev, recently commented, "It's the only industry in Georgia that actually works."

Clearly, the diplomatic measures are thinly disguised sanctions against the Tbilisi government which Russia has accused of harbouring Chechen rebels in the notorious Pankisi Gorge.

Vladimir Putin had threatened to close the border with Georgia in November 1999, shortly after Russia launched its military operation in Chechnya. A fact-finding mission to Georgia by Russian security supremo Sergei Ivanov earlier this year did little to set the president's mind at rest.

In the wake of the visa announcement, the Kremlin's spokesman on Chechnya, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, made a point of clarifying Russia's position in an interview on the state-run ORT channel. He called the move "a difficult decision" since Russia and Georgia had been allies for more than a century.

However, said Yastrzhembsky, Moscow saw no other option given Tbilisi's "odd" attitude to the Chechen conflict and the continued presence of Chechen rebels in the Pankisi Gorge where, he explained, the warlords "had built themselves quite a few cosy nests".

The Kremlin spokesman reminded the TV audience that Russia had repeatedly voiced its protests but the Georgian government had failed to take any decisive action. Nor did Russia see any "burning desire" on Georgia's part to tackle the problem in the future.

Relations between the two countries have also been soured by Shevardnadze's overtures to NATO - the Georgian president has pledged to coming "knocking on NATO's door by the year 2005".

For some time, however, it seemed that Russia might delay the introduction of visa regulations due to fears that Georgia would take retaliatory action. The Tbilisi government has expressed particular outrage over any suggestion that Abkhazia and South Ossetia might be exempt from the visa regime.

Both territories - which now enjoy de facto independence from Tbilisi - received Russian military support during their wars with Georgia. The Georgian parliament now says that preferential treatment over visa regulations would amount to "an annexation of these territories by Russia".

Last week, Kommersant daily newspaper quoted the parliament's speaker Zurab Zhvania as saying, "If this were to happen, we would raise an international outcry at Russia's policy of arbitrary annexation and invasion of territories which are indisputably Georgian".

Tbilisi also considers such a move will amount to a violation of the World Trade Organisation's (WTO) charter (which Georgia joined last year). In the event, Georgia would protest against Russia's proposed membership of the WTO - which depends on a unanimous consensus of existing members.

Putin and Shevardnadze were due to dot the 'i's and cross the 't's when they met at the CIS summit in Minsk at the end of last week. Some observers speculated that the Russian foreign ministry announcement coupled with Yastrzhembsky's comments may have been timed to set the tone for this meeting.

In the event, the summit was inconclusive. ORT reported that both leaders had entrusted their diplomatic corps with the task of drafting a new bilateral treaty to replace an existing document which is already six years out of date.

Shevardnadze was quoted by ORT as saying that the introduction of a visa regime will "complicate bilateral relations to a certain degree".

However, last week it seemed that diplomatic pressure from Russia was paying off. According to official reports, the Georgian government has admitted that the situation in the Pankisi Gorge was getting out of control while security minister Vakhtang Kutateladze pledged that urgent measures would be taken to address the problem.

Meanwhile, according to Sevodnya daily newspaper, villagers in Alvaani in the Akhmetsky district have staged a protest meeting to demand tougher action against Chechen gangs responsible for a series of kidnappings and cattle heists in the region.

Georgia's security and interior ministries are to launch a concerted campaign to seal off the mountain paths leading into Chechnya by December 11-12.

Mikhail Ivanov is executive editor of Russian Life, a bimonthly magazine published by Russian Information Services, Inc.