Schengen looks east: tearing down the paper curtain

June 2017

A new visa-free arrangement with the Schengen zone is proving popular in Georgia and Ukraine, writes Eimear O’Casey, Associate Analyst.

Descending the hills from Tbilisi airport to the city’s historic centre in the middle of the night, a blaze of blue and yellow lights greeted me. The city’s landmarks, including the Bridge of Peace and the iconic TV tower, were lit up in the colours of the EU flag. I was used to seeing symbols of Georgia’s close relationship with Europe across the city on previous visits, but this was the end of March and the lights marked a specific achievement. As my taxi driver proclaimed: “We are proud and honoured to be commencing a visa-free regime with the EU’s Schengen zone from tomorrow night”.

Under the new regime, in force since 28 March, Georgians have been able to travel to the EU’s Schengen zone (that is all member states except Ireland and the UK) without a visa for 90 days in any 180-day period. On 12 June, Ukrainians celebrated a similar achievement, a feat which President Petro Poroshenko referred to as the ‘fall of the paper curtain’. Although the programme does not permit Georgians and Ukrainians to work in the EU, it is widely anticipated that many will use it to take advantage of seasonal casual employment opportunities across the EU, where salaries for jobs of all types are higher than at home.

The deal was a long time coming. Negotiations over visa liberalisation for Georgia and Ukraine began in 2008. The final agreement was scheduled to enter into force in mid-2016, but concerns among some EU member states about a potential surge of migrants into the EU saw the process delayed a number of times. Securing visa-free access to Schengen countries was also contingent on Georgia and Ukraine carrying out judicial reforms and improving anti-corruption and, for Georgia, reinforcing its border security capabilities.

For Ukraine, this deal marks a further step in warmer ties with the EU, and an additional nail in the coffin for its already strained relationship with Russia. The EU’s relationship with Ukraine has also been fretful. This deal had been in the theoretical pipeline since 2008, and was scheduled for its final stages and competition in November 2013, but former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, under significant pressure from Moscow, pulled out of the Association Agreement with the EU, prompting widespread protests in Ukraine that ultimately led to his ousting. Regional turmoil ensued, including Russia seizing the opportunity to annex Crimea and offer support for rebel groups in eastern Ukraine, where a conflict still rages. As relations between Ukraine and Russia dwindle to trading barbs and sanctions, Ukraine has reinvigorated its ties with the EU, in a bid for regional diplomatic and business partners. Despite hesitation from the Netherlands, the EU finally approved Ukraine’s visa free regime in May, but it comes at a price – Ukraine must comply with the West’s stringent and far-reaching anti-corruption programme, putting pressure on the persistent dominance of interest groups with vested interests in Ukraine’s key sectors. While the EU’s visa carrot is likely to encourage the Ukrainian authorities to enact some reforms, definitively breaking this monopoly is likely to be a taller order.

In Georgia, those I spoke to throughout my visit were awash with pride about their new visa-free status, and the celebrations didn’t stop at coloured city lights. On the night of 27/28 March, a concert was held in the city centre and fireworks lit up the sky. For the two days prior to the deal coming into force, a European food and music festival was hosted on one of the city’s shopping streets. The prime minister carried out a European tour to mark the occasion in early April. The contrast with the mood of the last year in much of my native UK, where 52% of the population voted to leave the EU in a referendum in June 2016, was marked.  “You guys [the UK] are leaving, so a space at the table has opened up for us: one out, one in”, went the joke about town during my four-day visit.

Georgians are enthusiastic about the practical benefits of the visa-free regime, to be sure. In line with trends across the region, Georgia has seen its currency weaken and exports fall since late 2014 as a result of low commodity prices, which have reduced purchasing power in the key Russian market. Closer links with the EU mean new export and employment opportunities.

But much of the positive sentiment I encountered was less pragmatic. It derived from the sense of dignity that comes with no longer having to endure lengthy interviews and to pay a hefty sum to secure a visa for a two-day minibreak to a European city. Freedom of movement holds a special place for a country whose collective, if not personal, memories of the Soviet Union include tight state control over internal movement, and even deportation.

Georgia has remained a deeply Europhile country despite creeping fatigue in recent years with the slow progress in EU and NATO integration. At a summit in 2008, NATO promised Georgia that it could join the security alliance once certain commitments had been met. Since then, NATO has been careful not to reiterate a direct membership promise. Georgia’s ongoing territorial dispute with Russia over the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia keeps either EU or NATO membership out of reach for the foreseeable future. While some independent polling conducted last year indicated that enthusiasm for closer relations with Russia was rising, probably because of the lack of advances in EU and NATO integration, more recent polling shows that more than three-quarters of the population remain in favour of EU membership, and prioritise this over closer relations with Russia. It is hard to imagine Georgia’s urban elites, at any rate, turning their back on Europe this generation.

However, contrary to assumptions, this EU-philia does not come at the expense of close relations between Georgians and Russians on a personal level. Russian tourists fill restaurants and tour buses, and are greeted with a warmth and brotherliness not yet extended to the less familiar, burgeoning Western European tourist contingent. The number of Russians visiting Georgia has only increased in the last few years, as government-level ties have been restored to a significant degree following the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia over the disputed territories. Young Georgians for the most part are pragmatic and internationalist, and rarely associate their deep misgivings about Russian foreign policy with individual Russians whom they encounter.

Naturally, the picture in Ukraine is rather less optimistic. Ukrainians remain deeply divided between support for their pro-EU government, and support for pro-Russia rebel groups in the east. Public dissatisfaction with the authorities is high, as most Ukrainians have not reaped tangible economic benefits from Ukraine’s EU trajectory, corruption remains high, and monthly salaries remain low. Protests against unpopular austerity measures are not infrequent, and towns in the east formerly held by rebel groups are dissatisfied with the government’s inability to repair roads and buildings damaged by shelling.

While many Ukrainians still have family members living in Russia and vice versa, the Ukrainian government triggered a ban on as part of the tit-for-tat sanctions, there are no direct commercial flights between the countries, and rail links too are under threat, making it harder to visit loved ones. Moreover, anti-Russian sentiments are pervasive and becoming enshrined in law – although it is de rigueur for most Ukrainians to be fluent in both Russian and Ukrainian, the Ukrainian authorities have introduced new language laws restricting or outright banning Russian language media, and requiring that the majority of television programmes be broadcast predominantly in Ukrainian.  Although it is not the norm, subsidiaries of Russian-state owned businesses are occasionally targeted in arson attacks by Ukrainian nationalist groups, leading to the exit of Sberbank and others.  Increasing isolation from Russia, alongside an insistent media that portrays Russia as responsible for most of Ukraine’s socio-economic ills is all unlikely to bode well for a political rapprochement in future.

By contrast, the mood in Tbilisi at the end of March was, inevitably, a little naïve. Just as the EU tends to idealise Georgia as the former-Soviet success story, Georgians are prone to imbuing the EU with a mythical status – the answer to all their ills. Still, one could not help but be stirred by a moment of such optimism and pride in a country’s history. And to be reminded of what the EU and its freedom of movement principle means for many on the other side of its borders.

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