In a bid to promote its national pride and boost tourism, the previous Georgian government greeted travellers with a small bottle of wine. The present government briefly revived the practice over the past Christmas. But visitors may have reason to feel less welcome since Georgia adopted a new immigration law in September 2014. Georgia’s immigration policies were once a hallmark of the previous government’s libertarianism. At the peak, citizens from 118 countries could enter Georgia without a visa and stay for a year. Anyone who wanted to stay longer could simply leave the country one day and come back the next – allowing them to live for years in Georgia perfectly legally without any official immigration status at all. But the new law changes matters considerably. Now, visas are waived for visitors from 94 countries, instead of 118; and they are only allowed to stay 90 out of 180 days. Georgia’s vibrant expat community has complained of unclear rules and inconsistent enforcement, flooding social media and forum groups with reports of contradicting instructions, unprepared officials and unexplained rejections of visa and residence requests from foreigners who had been living and working in the country. One US-Iraqi couple who owned a business registered in Georgia saw the American’s application approved and the Iraqi’s rejected. Indian investors in Georgia were turned down, while a Georgian-American couple ended up applying for citizenship as the process was less complicated than getting a residence permit. Numerous applications, including some for children, were rejected on unspecified “national security concerns”. Government officials said changes to the previous “extremely liberal migration policy” were in line with requirements of the Visa Liberalisation Action Plan that the European Union presented in 2013. That agreement, which should ease requirements for Georgians travelling to the EU, tackles document security, border and migration management, public order and security, and human rights. Moldova, which like Georgia signed an Association Agreement with the EU in June last year, already benefits from visa liberalisation with the EU. Some migration experts think that aligning Georgia’s policy with international standards simply makes sense. “The open-door policy is untenable,” says Marc Hulst of the International Organisation for Migrations (IOM) in Tbilisi, which has been helping the government revise migration policy. “The problem is not moving towards a more controlled mechanism, as long as this mechanism is transparent and based on unambiguous and clear procedures.” The business community however has taken a different view, labelling the new law a nightmare for foreigners and an obstacle for investors. “The visa restriction and its messy implementation is just the last of a series of business-unfriendly bills implemented by the government, from the labour code, to the ban on purchasing land for foreigners, to an increased pressure from the revenue office,” says Fady Asly, chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce of Georgia. “Georgia is starving for investment, but this regulation has poisoned the life of foreigners and significantly affected investors’ confidence.” Investors like Asly believe in the free movement of capital, people, goods and services – the more open a country is to foreigners, the easier it is to compete in the global economy. “Georgia is losing its competitive edge,” he adds, “which is a luxury it cannot afford to miss out on as a small country of 4.5m people with no energy resources and a strategic geographical location as key assets.” He is not a lone pessimist. Eric Livny, executive director of the International School of Economics, argues that hasty attempts to cut-and-paste policies to tick boxes, namely to “harmonise” Georgia’s legislative and regulatory environment with the EU, are “undermining Georgia’s reputation as a great place to do business”. For its part, the EU considers the new limit of 90 days closer to the EU standards, but stress the difference between policy and implementation. “The new system meet the benchmarks set by the visa liberalization plan,” EU Ambassador to Georgia Janos Herman told beyondbrics. “However, it is a sovereign decision of the Georgian government to decide how these requirements are implemented.” In an interview last October, Cecilia Malmström, then EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, said that the Commission “has not been recommending limiting access to Georgia for citizens of any specific countries.” Despite controversial statements by some officials, which rights groups labelled as “xenophobic”, the government appears to have taken some of the criticism on board. A month after the law came into force Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili apologised to affected foreign citizens for the inconveniences. Parliament amended the law at the end of November by changing a procedure that required foreigners already in the country to apply to the Georgian diplomatic representation in their own countries. In February the government introduced an e-visa portal. On March 12, during a joint parliamentary committee hearing, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, economy minister and deputy prime minister, said “some wrong messages” had been sent to the business community, acknowledging that the “system was not ready” and there were “complications” in issuing residence permits. He added that the government would “soon” present to the parliament a bill “liberalising” the visa requirements, but did not give any details. The policy change has certainly had some negative consequences. Tourism went down by 42,000 arrivals in the last four months of 2014 compared to the previous year. Real estate agencies claim transactions by foreigners dropped by 25-30 per cent and certain imports may be more expensive, too. “Visas are now a valuable commodity and truck drivers with a valid document to enter Georgia are using it to leverage their fees,” Asly says. “Costs for a truck from Iran for example have doubled, from an average of $1,500 in August to $3,000 in October, with an inevitable effect on the final price for consumers.” The change may also have contributed to a rise in the number of asylum seekers in Georgia, from 714 people at the end of 2013 to 1,792 at the end of 2014, according to data from the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons and Refugees (MRA). The majority of the requests – 1,570 – were filed from July 1, when people such as Iraqis threatened by Isis could enter Georgia without a visa and stay for 360 days. With that avenue now closed, the asylum procedure allows applicants to be legally in country while their case is under consideration, a process than can last up to two years.
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