Staunton, October 17 – Despite Moscow’s anger and criticism in Georgia itself, many people in Russia’s North Caucasus republics are delighted with Tbilisi’s decision to allow them visa-free travel to Georgia, although some say this opportunity should be open to all Russian citizens and others worry Moscow may block them from taking advantage of this opportunity.
The Kavkaz-uzel.ru news agency, one of the most objective journalist operations in the North Caucasus, interviewed people in Chechnya (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/175633/) and in Adygeya (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/175609/) on their reactions to the Georgian visa free program for North Caucasians.
While the news agency makes no claim that the people it interviewed are representative of the population as a whole – many spoke only on condition of anonymity, and Kavkaz-uzel.ru journalists did not have access to all groups – the comments that the agency provides suggest that the visa-free program is winning “the hearts and minds” of the North Caucasians.
(For a detailed discussion of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili’s plans in this regard, see Tbilisi historian and journalist Georgy Zedgenidze’s article “Georgia is Conducting a Struggle for the Minds and Hearts of Russian Mountaineers,” which is available in Russian at slon.ru/blogs/gzegenidze/post/479724/.)
Residents of Chechnya, Kavkaz-uzel.ru reports, “note that the elimination of Georgian of the visa regime for residents of the North Caucasus republics eliminates many problems arising in the cross of the border with this country” but add that they are fearful that “the Russian powers that be will tighten the rules for their own citizens of crossing state borders.”
“I cannot understand why the powers that be of Russia have reacted so negatively to this decision of Georgia. I would think that any government ought to express approval to the fact that its citizens do not have to experience additional problems in travelling to neighboring countries.” But Moscow instead chose to make “loud propaganda” against it.
“It turns out,” he continued, “that the leadership of Georgia is so bad that it decided to easy the life of part of the citizens of Russia living in the North Caucasus. Apparently, the Kremlin isn’t pleased that now residents of our region will not travel to Moscow for visas” from which officials there can make money.
Another Chechen, Ramzan M., said he welcomed the change because his wife has relatives in the Pankisi Gorge and now it will be much easier to visit them. “Of course,” he continued, “we can only greet this decision of the Georgian authorities. They think in the first instance about the interests of simple citizens and not about politics or something else.”
Abubakar, a resident of Grozny, added that he had been in Georgia during Soviet times and retains many friends there. “More than once they have invited me to come for a visit,” but getting a visa which required a trip to Moscow prevented him from doing so. “I hope that now I will be able to visit my friends,” who have already telephoned to ask him to come.
But he said that he is concerned that the Russian authorities, because of their anger at Georgia, will “toughen the rules” for border crossing into Georgia in order to prevent more people from visiting that country. Russian citizens have had to pay bribes to border guards in the past, “now [this requirement] may become still worse.”
Kavkaz-uzel.ru journalists also spoke with residents of the Republic of Adygeya. Most of those with whom they spoke said that “the opening of visa free entrance into Georgia was an incomplete step,” one that should be extended to all citizens of the Russian Federation rather than to only one part.
Timur Khuranov, a resident of Adygeysk, said that he had long wanted to visit Georgia but had been put off by the requirement that he travel to Moscow to get a visa. Now, he had he was “happy that the opportunity to realize his longtime dream had appeared.” Now all he has to do, he said, is “sit in his car and drive.”
Valentina Filatova, a Maikop resident, said that “of course, the removal of excessive limits for entrance into Georgia only brings our countries closer together and makes their residents closer to one another” – especially for those like herself who have “distant relatives” there and now have “a real chance” to visit them.
But others with whom Kavkaz-uzel.ru journalists spoke were more skeptical. “If we can travel to Georgia,” Aydamir Tleuzh, a resident of the Takhtamukaysk district of Adygeya, asked, “then why can’t the residents of Krasnodar who live only 10 kilometers from our village?”
And Alina Kononenko, a resident of Adygeya’s Krasnogvardeysk district, agreed. “I am sure,” she said, “that equal opportunities must be created for everyone. I have acquaintances who have close relatives in Georgia and who live in Kazan. How are things supposed to work for them? Are they worse than we?”
Consequently, Kononenko said, she had to conclude that “this step of the Georgian leadership is an instrument with which [Tbilisi] can ‘split’ Russians into various parts,” an outcome that she implied was totally unacceptable for her and should be for everyone in the region as well.