Internal and External Impulses
On 1 July 2013, Georgia "temporarily suspended" its visa-free regime with the Islamic Republic of Iran. A segment of analysts think that this step was a result of pressure from the United States and Israel on Tbilisi. We, however, have grounds to believe that the more realistic reason behind this move is the increasingly isolationist foreign policy of the current government, which is closely intertwined with the impulses that Georgian society has recently revealed.
Georgia and Iran signed the agreement on visa-free travel in November 2010 during the visit of Manouchehr Mottaki, the then Foreign Minister of Iran, to Tbilisi. The agreement, which came into force in January 2011, envisaged 45-day-long visa-free travel for citizens of Georgia to Iran and for citizens of Iran to Georgia. The visa-free travel regime significantly contributed to an increase in the number of Iranian students and tourists coming to Georgia: 21,000 Iranians traveled to Georgia in 2010, whilst this number reached 90,000 in 2012.
The introduction of visa-free travel with Iran was part of the vision of the former government that set the promotion of tourism as one of its main goals. Moreover, the implementation of large infrastructure projects, the fight against crime and corruption, the enhancement of the efficiency of state institutions and other steps taken for the modernization of Georgia were all in full harmony with the liberalization of the visa regimes with more than 100 countries across the world – an unprecedented move for our region. Thus, the introduction of visa-free travel with Iran was part of the bigger picture and not a decision out of touch with reality.
The improved efficiency of the police, security, border guard and customs services, which, inter alia, translated into a significant decrease in crime and the increase in civil safety, was a guarantee that visa-free travel would not mean uncontrolled traffic. Thus, in parallel with liberalizing its visa regime, Georgia remained committed to its international obligations in the fight against terrorism and other threats, including honoring the sanctions that the UN Security Council imposed on the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Some 21,000 Iranians traveled to Georgia in 2010, whilst this number reached 90,000 in 2012.
Bearing in mind the nature of the political regime in Tehran and the international situation, the introduction of the visa-free regime with Iran was a rather bold and, in the assessment of some, even risky step on the part of the government of President Saakashvili. This step did not go unnoticed by the West, namely, by the USA. Washington, especially the US Congress, feared that Tehran, which in their opinion attempts to escape international isolationism and to dodge sanctions by hook or by crook, was using Tbilisi to fulfill its geopolitical schemes.
Many in the West failed to understand what type of link could possibly exist between the Euro-Atlantic course of Georgia – the country engaged in a strategic partnership with the US – and the "thawing of politics" with Iran. Politicians, diplomats and analysts well versed in Iran-related issues, were more concerned about the activities of those business circles with close ties to Iran's security services in Georgia, especially in the energy, oil products and banking sectors, than they were about visa-free travel between Tbilisi and Tehran.
A significant role in exaggerating the "rapprochement" between Georgia and Iran was performed by those lobbyists groups and think tanks based in Washington that have close ties with the Russian security services. Their aim was to undermine the image of the Georgian president and accuse him of treason. They tried to portray the actions of the Georgian government as if they were supporting friendship with Washington and NATO in words, but were befriending the US's mortal enemy, Iran, by deeds.
The fuss kicked up in 2011 gradually abated, especially against the background of Georgia enhancing its military participation in NATO's ISAF mission. Moreover, portraying Tbilisi as both a friend of Iran, a state supporting terrorism, and as a traitor to the West appeared comical set against Georgia's positive image as a country oriented on liberal reforms and modernization. Georgia also benefited from influential American political commentators recollecting an incident that occurred in 2007: in that year, Georgia arrested and handed over to Washington, Amir Hossein Ardebili, an Iranian citizen accused by the US of illegally trading in arms. Back then, that arrest worsened relations between Iran and Georgia so much that Tehran even threatened Tbilisi that it would recognize Abkhazia as an independent state.
Analysts and politicians positively disposed towards Georgia gradually started talking about the beneficial influence which visits to and travel in "a neighboring democratic state," i.e. Georgia, would have on citizens of Iran – much like the former US Ambassador to Georgia, John Bass, publicly declared in 2012. The decisive word about the benefits of visa-free travel for Iranian citizens was said by former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She was so impressed by seeing the multitude of Iranian and other tourists during her visit to Georgia in the spring of 2012 that, days later, when talking to the media in Israel, she could not hide her excitement about the friendly atmosphere that tourists from Iran, Israel, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia and other countries all experienced in Batumi, or as she put it, "a kind of mini Las Vegas on the Black Sea," and the other cities of Georgia. Such an acknowledgement by a senior US official virtually eliminated any question marks skeptics and opponents had about visa-free travel with Iran.
When the state's machinery is up and running; when the border guard and other services work professionally and visa-free travel does not mean uncontrolled traffic; when Georgia's top strategic partner treats the decision of a sovereign country with understanding and, even more so, applauds it by pointing out the benefits it brings; what now is the reason for scrapping the visa-free regime, what is the aim behind such a move taken today?
Some 84 Iranian companies were registered in Georgia in 2010. This number increased to 1,489 in 2012.
On 11 June 2013, the foreign minister of Georgia, Maia Panjikidze, harshly criticized the liberal visa regime of the former government: "Georgia has a visa-free travel regime with 121 countries, including a unilateral, non-reciprocated regime with 114 countries. This enables citizens of these countries to stay in Georgia for 160 days a year without taking visas. The majority of these countries failed to respond by taking a reciprocal step with Georgia, and also failed, at the very least, to inform us that they had taken note of our decision. No country with self-esteem should do that. Consequently, it is not ruled out that we will change this approach with a number of countries, especially considering that there is no inflow of either tourists or economic investments from some of those countries. Moreover, given the global situation, we must enhance the security of our country."
This statement of Maia Panjikidze indicates the serious intention of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's government to reverse the liberal visa regime. The suspension or termination of visa-free travel with Iran seems to be part of this policy. However, the arguments are obviously unconvincing for the following reasons: 1. visa-free travel with Iran was regulated under an agreement and, consequently, was bilateral; 2. the number of Iranian tourists dramatically increased as a result of the visa-free regime; 3. as regards investment inflow, Iranian businesses are presumably quite interested in enhancing their economic activity in Georgia, proof of which was seen in the Iranian business forum and conference held in Tbilisi in early July. According to the Wall Street Journal, some 84 Iranian companies were registered in Georgia in 2010. This number increased to 1,489 in 2012. The important thing for Georgia is to avoid a violation of the sanctions and to conduct such processes with maximum transparency so they are comprehensible for our partners.
Yet another aspect of Maia Panjikidze's argument cited above is the reference to security, which, naturally, is important not only in relations with Iran, but with any other country. However, directly linking the visa-free regime with the issue of security is unconvincing. The smooth operation of relevant services in the country is more important in preventing and neutralizing terrorism and other threats than is the toughening of the visa regime. Besides, in a setting where thousands of convicts have been released under a universal amnesty, where criminals have been stepping up their activity, and where crime and the sense of impunity has increased, seeing the closure of borders as an important element in strengthening civil security is unconvincing and cynical.
Another segment of commentators link the abolition of the visa-free regime with Iran with Ivanishvili's visit to Israel; such was the opinion expressed in an article published by a US think tank, the Jamestown Foundation. The Israeli government must, of course, have raised the issue of Iran, but it is very doubtful that a request to restrict visa-free travel formed part of that discussion.
More realistic seems to be that the abolition of the visa-free regime with Iran is part of a new foreign policy course – much like the introduction of visa-free travel was an important aspect of the former foreign strategy. While the enactment of the new norm in 2011 was prompted by a desire to liberalize social and public life, in 2013, the reintroduction of a visa regime for Iranians and citizens of other states is, inter alia, prompted by increasing xenophobic sentiments among Georgian society. The ban on the sale of land to foreigners, the introduction of new regulations in the business sphere, and the temptation of the current government to engage in the establishment of moral norms for society, are those domestic political levers which contribute to blurring of and alienation from our foreign policy course. This, at the end of the day, impedes the implementation of the key foreign policy priorities that have been declared by Georgia – integration into NATO and the European Union.