The visa liberalisation agreement between Georgia and the EU is expected to enter in force in Summer 2016, allowing Georgian citizens holding biometric passports to enter and stay in Schengen area countries without a visa for up to 90 days in a 180-day period. EU-Georgia Visa Liberalisation Dialogue was launched in June, 2012. In February 2013, Visa Liberalisation Action Plan (VLAP) was presented to Georgian authorities. The European Commission’s December 2015 progress report stated that “given the outcome of the continuous monitoring and reporting carried out since the launch of the EU-Georgia Visa Liberalisation Dialogue, the Commission considers that Georgia meets all the benchmarks set in respect of the four blocks of the second phase of the VLAP.” Visa liberalisation, however, in no way gives Georgians the right to work, study or become residents of Schengen area countries – for these purposes, a labor, study or immigration visa will be needed.
Visa liberalisation is considered a significant success of Georgian foreign policy and is an important step towards country’s EU integration through increased mobility. It is crucial to know, however, to what extent the population of Georgia is aware of the specific aspects of visa liberalisation, hence – how informed their opinions about this process are.
Before the European Commission’s December 2015 progress report mentioned above, CRRC’s 2015 Caucasus Barometer survey, conducted in October 2015, asked a series of questions measuring the population’s awareness of the then-expected visa liberalisation process. When asked, will successful completion of the visa liberalisation process benefit or not ordinary people living in Georgia, only 12% responded ‘no,’ while 32% answered they believed it would benefit ordinary Georgians. The remaining 56%, however, answered either “Don’t know” or said they did not know what the visa liberalisation process was (26% and 28%, respectively), with a small share refusing to answer the question. Hence, questions about specific aspects of the visa liberalisation process were only asked to those who answered either “yes” or “no” to this question i.e. just under a half (45%) of the total sample.
Importantly, only slightly over half (53%) of this group knows that only those Georgian citizens who possess biometric passports will be able to benefit from visa liberalisation, with 28% answering “Don’t know.” Even fewer (45%) are aware that the conditions of the visa liberalisation agreement will be effective only if the length of stay in EU countries does not exceed three months; this question resulted in the highest share (37% of the eligible group) answering “Don’t know.” Even more worrying is the finding showing that 42% of this group wrongly thinks that visa liberalisation will allow the Georgian citizens who have already emigrated gain living and work permits in the EU countries, without having to apply for additional residency documents – a major misunderstanding of what visa liberalisation is about.
Note: These questions were asked only to those who answered either “Yes” or “No” to the previous question, “In your opinion, will successful completion of the visa liberalisation process benefit or not benefit ordinary people living in Georgia?” (i.e. 45% of the total sample).
Although those living in Tbilisi tend to have slightly better knowledge compared to those living in other cities/towns or villages, the difference is not striking, and it cannot be claimed that the Tbilisi population is very well informed about specific aspects of visa liberalisation.
There are, though, interesting variations in knowledge by age. While Georgians of all age groups respond quite similarly to the question about whether or not visa liberalisation conditions apply if a person does not hold a biometric passport, younger Georgians tend to be better informed that the visa liberalisation agreement will be effective only if the length of stay in EU countries does not exceed three months and that visa liberalisation does not actually mean that Georgian citizens who have already emigrated will gain living and work permits in EU countries.
These findings strongly suggest that an awareness raising campaign about what the visa liberalisation process with the EU actually implies is crucial. A successful campaign will help to ensure that the population of Georgia has adequate expectations of it and makes informed migratory decisions to the EU countries once visa liberalisation enters into force.