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On 15 May 2015, the Minister of Justice of Georgia, Tea Tsulukiani, on air on Palitra TV’s Resume,

stated: "The conclusions of specialists have demonstrated that the visa liberalisation process did not bring negative results." According to the Minister’s assessment, none of the aforementioned expert conclusions prove that the visa regulations have had a negative impact upon Georgia’s economy and tourism. The Minister of Justice also remarked that considering the associated economic risks, Giorgi Kvirikashvili had wanted to adopt a more liberal law but the Government of Georgia opted in favour of regulations. Ms Tsulukiani also emphasised that the visa regulations comprised a demand of the European Union.

FactCheck

took interest in the accuracy of the statement.

The new Law of Georgia on the Legal Status of Aliens and Stateless Persons has been in force since 1 September 2014. As a result, the entry of foreigners to Georgia has become considerably difficult. Further, a foreigner is allowed to stay in Georgia without obtaining a visa for a 90 out of 180-day period instead of the 360 days as it was in the past. Of note as well is that Georgia terminated its visa-free regime with 24 countries. However, on the initiative of the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development, the Parliament of Georgia has now simplified the visa regulations for the second time in response to the decrease in the country’s economic growth rate.

FactCheck has already written about Georgia’s visa regulations and the decrease in the number of tourists (see link 1, link 2).

There were 5,493,492 visitors to Georgia in 2014 which constitutes a 2% growth as compared to 2013. The first four months of 2015 are characterised by a decreased number of visitors. Compared to the first four months of 2014 the number of visitors to Georgia has dropped by 2%.

As a result of the imposition of the new visa regulations from 1 September 2014, Georgia maintains a visa-free regime with 94 countries instead of the previous 118. At the present moment, visas are required for citizens of 99 countries. Of these, Georgia has no diplomatic representation or consulate in 92. In order to better understand the impact of the new visa regulations upon the number of visitors, FactCheck

analysed the top five countries in terms of tourist numbers and for which Georgia abolished its visa-free regime as of 1 September 2014.

Table 1:

 Number of Tourists (2012-2013) and Difference (%) in September-December 2012-2014

 Year Iran Iraq Egypt China India
2012 25,011 4,487 1,437 3,792 3,193
2013 25,244 0.9% 15,850 25% 2,708 88% 3,129 17% 2,386 33%
2014 3,799 -84% 437 -97% 430 -84% 1,811 -42% 1,728 -27%

As illustrated by the above table, the number of tourists from the top five countries decreased sharply after the imposition of the new visa regulations. According to the 2013 data, the number of visitors from Iraq rose by 25% whilst it dropped by 97% in 2014. This same trend has remained in place for the first four months of 2015. As compared to the same period of the previous year, the number of visitors from Iran dropped by 72%, from Iraq by 85%, from Egypt by 48% and from China by 24% in 2015. Of note is that the number of visitors from India rose by 10%.

In total, there were 78,000 less tourists in Georgia in 2014 as compared to the previous year. Aside from the imposition of the new visa regulations, the negative processes taking place and further unfolding in the region also contributed to the decrease in the number of tourists. There were 166,245 less visitors from those countries with which Georgia has maintained a visa-free regime.

The new visa regulations have become a controversial topic for many experts. In addition, the former Prime Minister of Georgia, Bidzina Ivanishvili, stated that the imposition of the regulations in their present form was absolutely ill-thought and the incumbent Prime Minister, Irakli Gharibashvili, even issued an apology to foreigners residing in Georgia.

The majority of experts agree that the visa regulations had a negative impact upon Georgia’s investment environment because the regulations concerned those foreigners in particular who resided on the territory of Georgia and who were interested in obtaining a long-term visa or a residence permit. The new amendments to Georgia’s visa regulations were negatively assessed

by Transparency International – Georgia as well.  According to the organisation, the new law makes it unreasonably more difficult for foreign citizens to enter Georgia and obtain a residence permit whilst also creating unjustified problems for Georgia-bound investors and students. For instance, several investors have already contacted Transparency International – Georgia about their experiences of having been directly affected by the new law and rejected in their applications to obtain temporary residence permits.

It is interesting that even members of the Government of Georgia itself have spoken out about the negative impact of the new visa regulations. For example, the Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, declared

that the visa regulations have substantially decreased the number of both the tourists and the labour force coming to Georgia. According to the then adviser of the Prime Minister of Georgia, Roman Chkhenkeli, the Ministers of Justice and Foreign Affairs did not take the economic after-effect into account (decreased tourist numbers, decreased investments) in the process of the elaboration of the new visa regulations and these Ministries approved the new visa regime in avoidance of the advice of both the Economic Council and the economic team of the Government of Georgia.

Commercial and Economic Adviser of the Embassy of China to Georgia, Loui Bou, in his interview with The Financial,

has also spoken about the problems resulting from the new visa regulations. According to Mr Bou, 30 delegations from China visited Georgia in 2014 and started to prepare the ground for investments in various fields. However, these delegations lost trust in Georgia owing to the new visa regulations. He assesses that the new visa regulations might pose problems not only for future investors but also for those companies which are already established in the Georgian market.

As we can see, the new visa regulations have caused significant problems in the field of tourism and, especially, for the country’s investment environment. Therefore, it naturally had a negative impact upon Georgia’s economy. Consequently, on the initiative of the Government of Georgia, the Parliament of Georgia has now twice amended the new visa regulations.

According to Tea Tsulukiani, the adoption of the new visa regulations as designed by the Ministry of Justice, was an EU requirement. FactCheck has already conducted research

in this regard. The visa liberalisation action plan was drafted as a part of the framework of the EU-Georgia visa dialogue. One part of the action plan covers migration management and those changes which Georgia was required to implement; specifically, the envisaged consolidation of the legislative and institutional framework of Georgia’s migration policy with that of the EU. However, the specific requirement that those changes had to be enacted in the way which was done by the Ministry of Justice of Georgia was not indicated in the action plan or in the EU-Georgia Association Agreement. Therefore, the EU left Georgia considerable discretion to strengthen its immigration policy and combat illegal migration. The Government of Georgia had the opportunity to choose the method which would not have negatively affected the country’s economy and created problems for foreigners residing in Georgia.

On 29 October 2014, the second report

on the implementation of the visa liberalisation action plan was published. The report does not include assessments in regard to the law and its enforcement. The visa liberalisation report mentions the new legislative changes but this does not mean that the EU demanded these specific changes in the exact form in which they were implemented.

It is interesting to see whether or not the countries with which Georgia terminated its visa-free regime match those which are prescribed by the EU regulations. The EU and Georgia share a list of 17 countries whose citizens are required to obtain visas in order to enter their territories (Cuba, Dominican Republic, Granada, Haiti, Iraq, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Mongolia, Namibia, Palau, Peru, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, Surinam, and Trinidad and Tobago). There are five additional countries with which the EU has a three-month visa-free regime whereas Georgia has imposed a full visa-regime. An additional three countries are not even included in the list of countries outside the EU’s visa-regime policy. These countries are:  Bolivia, Niue and East Timor.

Of interest is that according to the former Deputy Minister of Justice, Davit Jandieri, the adoption of new visa regulations in this form was not required by the European Union.

Conclusion

After the new visa regulations entered into force, a number of visitors from those countries with which Georgia had terminated its formerly visa-free regime started to decrease. Additionally, the number of visitors also dropped from those countries with visa-free regimes.

The new regulations had a negative impact upon Georgia’s investment potential as well. This is confirmed by the statements of both the members of the Government of Georgia and by various experts and studies. Due to the worsened economic situation in the country, the Parliament of Georgia has twice amended the Ministry of Justice’s law. It must be noted that the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development had some reservations in regard to possible negative economic after-effects of the law although Tea Tsulukiani did not take these into consideration.

An analysis of the visa liberalisation action plan illustrates that the imposition of a harsher immigration policy in this form, the termination of visa-free regimes with different countries, the shortened duration of visas and the changes in the procedures to obtain a Georgian visa were not required by the European Union. According to the action plan it was important to elaborate a common policy and fight against illegal immigration instead of adopting the regulations in this very form.

FactCheck concludes that Tea Tsulukiani’s statement: "The decrease in tourism and the economic problems are not caused by the imposition of visa regulations… These regulations were required by the European Union," is FALSE.