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1 March 2024

Georgia: Amid Tension with the West, Tbilisi Makes it Easier for Georgians to Head East

Visa-free travel to China an outgrowth of budding ‘strategic partnership.’

Georgia: Amid Tension with the West, Tbilisi Makes it Easier for Georgians to Head East

Image: gov.ge

(Eurasianet) In a sign that Georgia is drifting toward geopolitical free agency, the Georgian government has reached a deal with China on visa-free travel for Georgian citizens.

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze broke the news on February 26, saying Tbilisi was interested in developing stronger ties with Beijing. The chief hope is that the move, under which Georgians can travel to China for up to 30 days without needing a visa, will spur trade. Georgia lifted visa requirements for visiting Chinese nationals last fall.

“Many citizens from our country have [traveled] to China for business purposes, but it has not been an easy process,” Economy Minister Levan Davitashvili said. “I believe the introduction of a visa-free regime will significantly simplify and facilitate this process.”

Intent on developing the so-called Middle Corridor trade route, China has poured millions of dollars into infrastructure projects in Georgia, the only country in the Caucasus with which Beijing has a free trade agreement

Georgia for much of the post-Soviet era moved in a westward direction, striving for accession to NATO and the European Union. In recent years, however, the prospect of NATO membership has fizzled and the Georgian Dream government in Tbilisi has embraced illiberal policy positions, raising doubts about its commitment to implementing EU-mandated reforms. Officials still insist they want EU membership, but they have also kept their geopolitical options open. In 2023, for example, Georgia and China signed a bilateral strategic partnership agreement.

Officials in Tbilisi said the visa-free travel arrangement was an outgrowth of the strategic partnership agreement. “We have been talking to different airlines in China about having more direct flights to different cities in China [from Georgia],” Davitashvili said.

Vakhtang Charaia, dean of the Business and ManagementSchool at Grigol RobakidzeUniversity, said the convenience of visa-free travel will be difficult to measure, in terms of its role in increasing trade turnover. Profit margins are still higher for Georgian firms exporting to the EU, with which Georgia also has a free-trade pact, Charaia said. But the new visa rules could cut some of the red tape around doing business in China, causing a beneficial ripple effect for mutual trade.

“Theoretically, there will be more and more positive signs between Georgia and China, which… could promote more investment, more tourism, and more trade,” Charaia said.