After months of warnings, Russia is finally about to begin requiring visas for most Georgian citizens visiting Russia. Many observers say that Russia's public justification for the move -- that it will block entry into Chechnya of what Moscow calls "Islamic terrorists" -- is simply a pretext for pressuring Georgia into greater tractability. Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports.
Moscow, 4 Dec 2000 (RFE/RL) - Beginning tomorrow, Georgian travelers will become the second citizens of a CIS state -- after Turkmens -- to need a visa to visit Russia. In Turkmenistan's case, the initiative came from Ashgabat, but it was Moscow that first raised the issue of visas for Georgians about a year ago, soon after the conflict in Chechnya began.
Officials say the visas are needed to protect Russia from terrorist incursions through Georgia. But many analysts see the visa requirement as barely concealed arm-twisting to force Georgia into a more compliant policy toward its larger neighbor.
For months, Russia has accused Georgia of failing to strengthen the 80-kilometer border it has with Chechnya and of harboring Chechen rebels. Georgian authorities have repeatedly denied giving any support to the rebels.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's adviser for Chechen affairs, Sergey Yastrzhembsky, said on television last week that Moscow's appeals to Georgia had not received what he termed any "adequate response."
"The point is that for many months, Russia has tried to evoke an adequate response in Georgia to our concern about the fact that Chechen fighters, Chechen separatists and their political representatives feel completely at ease and comfortable in Tbilisi -- not to speak of the Akhmet district and the Pankist gorge."
During a CIS summit in Minsk on Friday, Putin stressed that "the introduction of a visa regime is linked exclusively to the fight against terrorism." He also said it would only be a temporary measure.
But many analysts and commentators were quick to point out that the imposition of a visa requirement on Georgians will hardly affect illegal border crossings. This view is shared by Konstantin Zatulin, the head of the private CIS Research Institute, which often defends Russian nationalist-oriented polices.
"I don't think that installing a visa regime will bring any change to the situation in the Pankist gorge on the Chechen border. In principle, Georgia does not control that part. The population is Chechen on both sides of the border. So, in the same way as smugglers and mercenaries didn't ask for visas in the past to go into Chechen territory or to Russia, they will not ask for them in the future."
Zatulin believes that a strong Russian military presence on the border would be more effective than a visa requirement. And Carnegie Fund Caucasus expert Alexey Malashenko says that, given Georgia's military weakness, Tbilisi could not be any tougher, even if it wanted to.
In any case, most analysts see the measure as a strong reminder from Russia to one of its more rambunctious neighbors. In their view, after centuries of dependence, Moscow is telling Tbilisi that it should not seek now to develop independent policies.
Among Russia's chief problems with Georgia is Tbilisi's often repeated intention, in its words, to "knock on NATO's door" and its promotion of a Caspian oil pipeline circumventing Russia. For its part, Georgia is particularly concerned with the simmering local conflicts in Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia -- where separatist regimes in both regions receive support from Moscow. Also, from Tbilisi's perspective, Russia has been too slow in withdrawing from two out of four military bases it maintains in Georgia.
Zatulin, who often reflects Russian nationalist views, says the new visa regime "will demonstrate to Georgia a fact that it does not want to admit to itself -- that its population cannot survive without Russia." In fact, there is little doubt that the most hard hit will be ordinary Georgians who often depend on the vast Russian market to sell their fruits and vegetables.
In addition, the Russian Foreign Affairs ministry says that the initial cost of a visa will be about $10. That's a big, perhaps insurmountable obstacle for Georgian peasants who also will need to scrape together additional money to travel to Tbilisi to get their visa.
Some prominent members of Moscow's cultural world have spoken out against the visa requirement. The Bolshoi Theater's prima ballerina, Georgian Nina Ananiashvili --who has lived her entire life in Russia -- worries that it will make visiting her family more complicated. Ananiashvili told Russian's private television NTV that for those who cannot afford a visa -- whether they are Russians living in Georgia or Georgians living in Russia -- "it will mean breaking up families."
But the half-million Georgians living in Russia should profit from a three-month grace period that allows them time to get their documents in order. The only other exception so far announced is a softer traveling regime for Georgians from Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia. Moscow authorities say this is a "humanitarian measure" for people highly dependent on cross-border relations with Russia. But in Georgia it is seen as another affront, since it gives preferential status to regions already hostile to Tbilisi. Georgian president Eduard Shevarnadze calls it "discrimination."
Some analysts suggest that the imposition of a visa requirement on Georgians is meant to be heard beyond Tbilisi, in other CIS countries. Sergey Markov, the director of Moscow's Institute for Political studies, says it is meant as a "signal to all countries that are following a course hostile to Russia."
According to Markov, the message is: "Whoever is conducting an anti-Russian policy cannot count on any preferential treatment from Moscow." And, coincidentally or not, Moscow sent out another "signal" to Georgia over the weekend: Russia's gas and electricity supplies to Tbilisi were cut off Saturday for several hours, ostensibly over disputes about debts.