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Jubilant Georgians Ring In Visa-Free Travel To EU


Georgians are celebrating their newly won freedom to travel visa-free to most EU countries, with officials cheering it as a "historic" achievement for the country's nearly 4 million people.

There have been public celebrations across the country, and Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili joined students, journalists, and other state officials for an early morning flight from Tbilisi to Athens on March 28 to kick off the liberalized regime.

Kvirikashvili then continued on to Brussels, where he met with European Council President Donald Tusk.

At a joint press event, Tusk said, "it is a very special day for both the European Union and Georgia."

"It has been a long journey, but one that has brought us closer together," Tusk added.

The EU originally recommended lifting visa restrictions for Georgians in December 2015.

The process was bogged down by difficult negotiations among EU member states, many of whose populations have been gripped by security fears and a wariness of outsiders.

Georgian nationals with biometric passports can now travel visa-free to all EU member states except Britain and Ireland. It also applies to non-EU Schengen-area countries Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland.

"This is an enormous achievement and a great opportunity for Georgian citizens to better acquaint [themselves] with the European Union, to better learn the values that the European Union stands on," Kvirikashvili told reporters at Tbilisi airport.

Georgia has long sought closer ties to the EU despite persistent efforts by Moscow to increase its influence among post-Soviet states including Georgia, which fought a brief war with Russia in 2008.

"I'm very glad that the process of visa liberalization was completed successfully," a fellow traveler on the Tbilisi-to-Athens flight, Tinatin Tsereteli, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service.

"I think it's a huge achievement for our country...to move further close to the EU. This is symbolic but also has a practical meaning, because our citizens will get a chance to get acquainted with EU countries."

Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze has said that residents of Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will also be eligible to travel to the EU without visas if they have biometric Georgian passports.

Following the 2008 war, Moscow recognized the two regions as independent countries and maintains a strong military presence in both of them. Almost the entire international community considers them part of Georgia.

On the eve of the visa-free regime, Janelidze called Georgia's "European path...irreversible" and said it will bring "positive results" in all walks of life.

"I will be probably one of the first Georgians entering Germany without a visa, it is really an exciting and pleasant feeling. It's like being part of something historic," Mikheil Chabukashvili told RFE/RL at the airport.

"Previous trips to Europe implied a lot of effort, and now I hope all Georgians take the opportunity to use all the benefits of visa-free travel."

Public celebrations were organized across the country to mark the milestone.

Georgian and EU flags were installed on the streets of the capital and projected onto the government administration building, and a gala concert was held on Europe Square in downtown Tbilisi.

"I think it is a huge step forward for the country, especially young people will benefit from it," a Tbilisi resident said. "Many of them will be able to fulfill their dreams. Some of them may even start a business. Anyway, it's very exciting and very good."

But not everyone was so enthusiastic.

"For whoever is in the mood for sightseeing, it's probably good," an elderly Tbilisi resident said, "But for people like me, what can they do?"

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili suggested via Twitter that the visa liberalization was another step toward closer ties to Western institutions. "Thanks to our friends! Go #Georgia towards European Integration!"

The Georgians' embrace is a welcome change for EU officials otherwise occupied with the bloc's looming Brexit talks, uncertainty over a new U.S. administration, and surging nationalism and xenophobia following Europe's biggest refugee crisis since World War II.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn sent his "sincere congratulations" via Twitter and told Georgians to "enjoy Europe."

President Dalia Grybauskaite of EU member Lithuania released a video address on YouTube to congratulate Georgians on what she called a "special day."

"From now on, our nations will be even closer all because of the efforts of the Georgian people," Grybauskaite said. "Your commitment to freedom and democracy is an example for the region."

The visa negotiations between Tbilisi and Brussels were slowed by concurrent talks between the European Parliament and the European Council on a visa-suspension mechanism. That mechanism, which also entered into force on March 28, allows for visa-free travel to be suspended on security grounds.

Prime Minister Kvirikashvili said on March 24 that Georgian authorities would "notify the EU member states and launch a proactive search of nonreturnees to ensure the activation of readmission procedures."

With reporting by Rikard Jozwiak, RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Georgia Today, Civil.ge, and Agenda.ge
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