Georgian citizens find it far more difficult to obtain entry visas to EU Member States than citizens of neighboring countries – even countries with far weaker ties with the European Union than Georgia. That is the conclusion reached by the nongovernmental organization European Initiative of the Liberal Academy Tbilisi (EU LAT) in an extensive report released in late April.
The report – “Visa Facilitation and Readmission: Georgia’s Visa Liberalization Prospects with the EU” – analyses implementation of an agreement on visa facilitation and prospects for visa-free travel between Georgia and the European Union. Its findings reveal “striking” differences between visa issuance statistics for Georgia and corresponding indicators for neighboring countries. As the report shows, the EU visa refusal rate for Georgia is the highest in the region, averaging about 15 to 17 percent.
In 2010, Estonia led EU Member States in turning down more than 30 percent of visa applications submitted by Georgians. In 2011, the Netherlands took the lead, denying 27 percent of visa requests made at EU consulates in Georgia.
By contrast, the number of EU visa refusals for Eastern Partnership member states and Russia is significantly lower. According to 2011 data, the lowest visa denial indicators were observed in Russia and Belarus, at 1.2 and 0.9 percent, respectively. In Armenia, 10.8 percent of applicants were denied entry visas. The corresponding figure for the same period in Azerbaijan was 5 percent; in Moldova, 7 percent; and in Ukraine, only 3.4 percent.
EU-LAT Director Ketevan Tsikhelashvili discussed this disturbing trend with Tabula. Possible reasons that have been cited for the trend are a high indicator of migration from Georgia and the high number of Georgians seeking shelter in the EU countries. Tsikhelashvili, however, does not believe that either of those reasons satisfactorily explains Georgia’s “outstanding” indicator. As she notes, other countries with much lower visa refusal rates also have similar problems. For example, illegal migration is high in Moldova and, as concerns shelter-seeking in Europe, Russia is second only to Afghanistan.
“We have recommended that the Georgian government and the European Union cooperate in the area of identification and resolution of that problem,” Tsikhelashvili emphasizes.
Archil Karaulashvili, the Head of the Service for Coordination of European Integration at the office of the State Minister of Georgia on European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, agrees that EU representatives have failed to provide plausible explanations for such a state of affairs. Moreover, the government of Georgia has raised this issue with the European Union, including within the framework of a joint commission established under the Georgia-EU visa facilitation agreement.
“It is a pity that the EU Member States deny entry visas to so many citizens of Georgia,” Karaulashvili told Tabula. “It is not normal to have a visa facilitation agreement and to be in the worst position compared to those countries which do not have such an agreement, for example, Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan.”
According to Karaulashvili, “some EU Member States, including those with good attitudes towards us, deal with the issuance of visas with excess strictness.” That, he added, “is surprising and we think that they have to revise their policies.”
The EU-LAT study also looked into the activities of consulates of EU countries in Georgia in terms of implementation of the EU-Georgia Visa Facilitation Agreement and the EU Visa Code. The Visa Facilitation Agreement, which entered into force in March 2011, envisages simplification of visa issuance procedure for several categories of Georgian citizens, including members of official delegations, journalists and businessmen, to name a few. Under the agreement, terms of issuance of multiple-entry visas have also been eased; the visa fee has been reduced from €60 to €35, and twelve categories of citizens have been altogether exempted from the visa fee.
According to Ketevan Tsikhelashvili, the issuance of EU visas to Georgian citizens has been significantly simplified with enforcement of the visa facilitation agreement, but “sometimes there are some deviations.” Among such “deviations” are instances of citizens who qualify for an exemption being required to pay visa fees and citizens being issued short-term entry visas instead of one-year visas.
Archil Karaulashvili is tougher in his assessment of the activity of consulates: “At every meeting we raise the issue of full-fledged enforcement of the visa facilitation agreement because lots of violations occur.” In particular, he says that citizens are often mistreated by employees of consulates. He points to “cases when legal norms are not breached but the spirit of agreement is infringed. For example, a person who received a visa without any problems every year earlier is now, after the simplification, required to submit a lot more documents than before. The consulates may be legally entitled to do so, but that is not a fair attitude.”
The EU Visa Code, which entered into force in 2010, sets out a number of regulations for the consulates. Among other requirements, it envisages the submission of complete information by applicants in their native languages and correspondingly fully functional consular infrastructures. In 2011, a new provision was enacted which requires consulates to substantiate the grounds for refusing to issue a visa and grants a visa applicant the right to appeal the consulate’s refusal.
As Ketevan Tsikhelashvili explains, the biggest challenge concerning the activity of consulates in Georgia is getting them to observe those very conditions.
For now, difficulty in obtaining necessary information from the consulates is a continuing problem for Georgian citizens. Of the existing fifteen consulates in Georgia, only twelve of them have official Websites and, of those, six are only in foreign languages. Necessary information for applicants is not published in full, either on the consulate Websites or on notice boards at the consular offices. Information about the new requirement that consulates substantiate visa refusal is available on the Websites of only two consulates.
Citizens also find it difficult to contact consulates by telephone in order to obtain needed information. That is especially difficult for those living in the regions. There is a greater chance that, due to incomplete information provided by the consulates, Georgian applications will continue to be turned down on the ground of incomplete documentation.
Another problem is the waiting period from the time of application submission to the consulate appointment date. Although the EU Visa Code sets a two-week waiting period, the actual period can, seasonally, reach three and sometimes even eight weeks. Appointments at some consulates are disorderly with citizens forced to stand in “live queues,” often out in the streets because of inadequate infrastructures.
On a more positive note, the EU-LAT study found that Germany runs the most orderly consulate in Georgia.
The launch of negotiations between Georgia and the European Union on visa-free travel is scheduled for this summer. The precondition for those negotiations is implementation of the signed visa facilitation and readmission agreements.
Archil Karaulashvili says that Tbilisi has already successfully implemented the majority of reforms necessary for visa-free travel with the European Union. Among them are progress in fighting corruption and organized crime, integrated border management and document safety. Karaulashvili is confident that Tbilisi will be able to fulfill the requirements of any future action plan for visa-free travel, but the final decision on visa-free travel will depend on Brussels’ political will.
In the past, the European Union set certain conditions that Balkan States had to meet for visa-free travel, including the requirement of not exceeding 3 percent in the visa-refusal rate. Karaulashvili claims that EU representatives have promised Tbilisi they will not impose such a requirement on Tbilisi. The Georgian government, however, is not satisfied with just words and hopes that the European Union will act soon to change its visa issuance policy.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 99, published 7 May 2012.