Kalandadze told journalists that the move was intended to facilitate overland travel to Georgia by residents of the North Caucasus republics. Georgia broke off diplomatic relations with the Russian Federation in late August 2008 in the wake of its disastrous conflict with Russia over South Ossetia. Since then, Russian citizens wishing to travel to Georgia have been constrained to apply to the Swiss Embassy in Moscow, which represents Georgia's interests.
Kalandadze said abolishing the visa requirement was in line with the vision of a "free, stable, and united Caucasus" outlined by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in his address to the UN General Assembly last month. In that address, Saakashvili said the region had suffered from "division, injustice, conflict, colonization, and violence," but refrained from saying at whose hands.
Asked to comment on the Georgian move, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists on October 12 that "we have not yet seen any official decisions by the Georgian side." He said such issues should be resolved by mutual discussion by "civilized partners."
Two days later, the ministry released a harshly worded formal statement branding the unilateral Georgian move "a provocation" connected with Georgia's determination to "destabilize the North Caucasus in order to deflect attention from its destructive policies" with regard to its breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
It said that the "attempt to divide the population of Russia into various categories violates the norms of civilized interstate discourse." The statement went on to stress that "Russia has no problems with Georgia, with the Georgian people. But we do have a problem with the regime of M. Saakashvili." The failure to abide by the formal conventions of diplomatic parlance and refer to Saakashvili as "president" is a measure of the depth of Moscow's anger and outrage.
Colonel General Arkady Yedelev, deputy head of the North Caucasus Federal District that comprises all the North Caucasus republics except Adygeya, commented on October 12 that "such issues should be discussed bilaterally, and not decided at the whim of some Saakashvili."
Cool Welcome In The Caucasus
True, the lifting of the visa requirement makes purely logistical sense for residents of the North Caucasus who would otherwise have to travel to Moscow to obtain a visa to enter Georgia via the Verkhny Lars crossing point from North Ossetia. That border post does not issue Georgian visas. But those logistical advantages are overshadowed by the ideological and political implications of what some, not just in Moscow, construe as the continuation of Saakashvili's efforts to tap into and exploit the anti-Russian sentiments harbored by some of the peoples of the North Caucasus in general, and the Circassians in particular.
In December 2009, the state-controlled Georgian TV channel First Caucasian began Internet broadcasting in Russian to the North Caucasus. Three months later, the Georgian authorities convened a conference in Tbilisi devoted to the crimes committed by Russia against the peoples of the North Caucasus, in particular the Circassians. That congress drafted, and submitted to the Georgian parliament, a resolution on designating as "genocide" the mass slaughter of Circassians in the 19th century by Tsarist Russian troops. Lawmakers announced in April their readiness to launch "discussions" of the resolution. Circassian NGOs had appealed to the Russian State Duma in 2005 to condemn those killings as genocide, but without success.
While it is true that some Circassians hate the Russians, they also have little liking for the Georgians: this is one case in which "the enemy of my enemy" is not automatically perceived as "my friend." But even the remote possibility of a putative Georgian-Circassian alliance that could facilitate some Circassians' dreams of redrawing the map of the North Caucasus to create a Circassian republic uniting the territories that comprised the former medieval Circassian kingdom is anathema to the Karachais and Balkars. Those two related Turcophone peoples still co-habit with Circassians in territorial entities (Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkessia) created by then-Soviet leader Josef Stalin in 1922. Both republics border on Georgia.
It is therefore not surprising that the first (and the only one to date) North Caucasus leader to comment on the Georgian plans was Karachayevo-Cherkessia's Boris Ebzeyev, a Karachai. In a statement posted on his website on October 13, Ebzeyev lambasted the Georgian move as reflecting "the death throes of a regime that is trying at all costs to restore its irrevocably tarnished luster and does not stop at blatant provocations in the process."
Some Circassians too have reacted negatively to the Georgian proposal. Ilyas Soobtsokov, who heads the Adygeya regional branch of the pan-Circassian organization Adyghe Khase (People's Council), wrote it off as "just another ham-fisted attempt by Georgia to improve its relations with the peoples of the North Caucasus," and as reflecting Tbilisi's aspiration to serve as Washington's stalking horse in the region.
Asker Sokht, who heads the Adyghe Khase chapter in Krasnodar Krai, similarly said Georgia was seeking to make use of the North Caucasus as an instrument of its foreign policy.
...And In Georgia
Georgian opposition politicians too have expressed reservations, or even outright opposition to the new visa-free regime. Georgian parliament Deputy Chairman Levan Vepkhvadze (Christian-Democratic Movement) expressed concern that the free movement of Ossetians across the border could facilitate the "creeping annexation" of Georgian territory along that border to which some North Ossetian public organizations lay claim.
Former Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze for her part warned that abolishing the visa requirement could have disastrous consequences for Tbilisi. She raised the possibility that Russian border guards may not permit Russian citizens without a valid Georgian visa to leave the Russian Federation via Verkhny Lars.
She also argued that the move gives Moscow an additional pretext to accuse Georgia of harboring "terrorist groups," meaning the North Caucasus insurgency. But Georgian Minister for European Integration Giorgi Baramidze immediately rejected that latter argument as absurd, pointing out that "terrorists do not make use of legal border crossings."