Despite visa-liberalization victory, Georgia must continue on its path to reform
Good news swept through Georgia last week like a tsunami, as European Parliament approved Georgia’s long-awaited quest for visa-free travel within the Schengen zone. It is expected that as early as the end of March, Georgian citizens will no longer have to endure the expensive, and quite frankly, humiliating process of securing permission to travel to the EU. This impressive accomplishment is worth celebrating for many reasons, not least of which because it represents one more important step for the country in realizing its western aspirations.
The green light given by the European Parliament comes amid quite a whirlwind of positive news for the country. In February alone, Transparency International released its 2016 Perceived Corruption Index (PCI), which measures a country’s level of corruption, and Georgia was ranked an impressive 44th out of 167 countries, further exemplifying the country’s continued success at stamping-out corruption. The following week, Freedom House released its 2017 global report that measures political rights and civil liberties. Georgia, while still designated as only 'partially-free', nonetheless led the region in all important statistical categories, far outpacing its neighbors. These reports come on the heels of an even more impressive ranking provided in World Bank’s annual ‘Doing Business’ report that has Georgia ranked 16th in the world overall in ease of doing business. Most notably, Georgia was ranked in the report as being the 6th easiest country in the world to start a business.
While corruption and authoritarian leadership remain a constant in countries in the South Caucasus and the greater post-Soviet space, Georgia continues to set itself apart from the others, and represents an international success-story with regard to the democratic reforms and anti-corruption measures it has undertaken over the years. However, now that the battle appears to be won with regard to reaching the visa-liberalization milestone, Georgia must not become complacent or rest on its laurels. It must continue making progress, and use this new privilege as a springboard to bigger and better achievements.
This creates an opportunity for the country to build and improve on the reforms that got the country where it is today. That means making a concerted effort to more reliably implement the legislation that they painstakingly drafted in the process of meeting the EU’s stringent criteria starting in 2014. A prime example of this is the contentious anti-discrimination bill that was passed in the Parliament of Georgia in May of 2014. In this context, the laws are in the books, but certain aspects of this bill are rarely enforced – especially as it relates to sexual minorities. As a result, many within this demographic have been silenced out of fear that the authorities will not protect their rights, or worse yet – their physical well-being. This kind of de facto censorship is not a value that the European Union espouses or tolerates. Therefore, Georgia needs to make it a priority to address this shortcoming. Of course sexual minorities are not the only demographic that has been adversely affected by the arbitrary enforcement of the anti-discrimination legislation, the rights of religious minorities have also come under fire over the past few years.
Expanding understanding through travel
Although, not all Georgian citizens are in the financial position to take advantage of the visa-liberalization, those that are, must exploit this new privilege to the best of their ability. With freedom to travel, comes the opportunity to gain further exposure to other cultures. Theoretically, Georgian citizens who have not been able to travel to the European Union will now get to experience other cultures that differ from their own. This puts them in a position to gain an alternative perspective on how others live and exposes them to a different set of values. Visa-free travel also creates an opportunity for Georgian citizens to become cultural ambassadors of their own country. Not all Europeans know about Georgia, so this provides a great opening for Georgians traveling abroad to raise awareness about their country.
Raising the bar
Georgia’s new visa-free regime with the EU is a huge accomplishment, and is a testament to the hard work and determination of both the government and Georgian society. Georgians everywhere should feel proud of what their country has achieved. In fact, in light of the European Parliament’s landmark decision, the contrast between what Georgia has accomplished in the sphere of democratic reform over the last 26 years compared with its neighbors, has never been starker. As many of Georgia’s neighbors remain stagnant, saddled with the limitations that authoritarian governments bring with them, Georgia’s victory at the European Parliament widens further what was already a huge gap between itself and its peers in the region in this regard. However, Georgia cannot stop there, it needs to continue to chip-away at its goals and aspirations. It needs to set the bar even higher. Visa-liberalization is nice, but it should not represent the zenith of Georgia’s potential. So much more can be accomplished if the powers-that-be sustain their belief in democratic principles going forward. Continued change will not come easily, but momentum is on Georgia’s side.