In a few weeks’ time the number of countries that Georgian citizens will be able to freely travel to may significantly increase. Some ten days ago, European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) voted in favour of a proposal to lift visa requirements in the Schengen area for Georgian citizens, 44 votes against 5. The vote was a strong confirmation of the fact that Georgia had met all of required reform targets envisaged under the Visa Liberalisation Action Plan.
Prior to LIBE’s vote, GORBI conducted a nationwide, face-to-face survey that explored the attitudes of Georgian citizens towards a number of both Western and Eastern institutions. One of the topics we were interested in was the possible backlash to Georgian public opinion if the EU were to reject visa-free travel. We thus asked the following question to a nationally representative sample of Georgian citizens:
As you may know, Georgia is negotiating visa-free travel for Georgian citizens in the EU as a first step towards eventual membership in the EU and NATO. If the EU does not allow visa-free travel for Georgian citizens, should Georgia do the following:
1) abandon efforts to join the EU,
2) abandon efforts to join NATO, or
3) join Russia’s Eurasian Union?
The respondents were simply asked to agree or disagree with each statement. In addition to being able to make statements about the Georgian population as a whole, our sampling design also included oversamples of ethnic minority groups that allow us to analyze the opinions of Armenians and Azerbaijanis living in Georgia.
Nationally representative sample
The chart shows the net percentage rating for each question by each group (i.e. the national sample, Armenians, and Azerbaijanis). The table shows the net-ratings for each question which were calculated by taking the percent who disagreed with the statement and subtracting the percent who agreed with the statement.
In the case of the nationally representative sample, there is a 22 percentage-point gap between the percent of individuals who disagree and agree with abandoning efforts to join the EU. That is to say, a larger number of Georgian citizens believe that efforts to join the EU should be maintained. There is a similar percentage point gap (21%) between those who disagree and agree with abandoning efforts to join NATO. More interesting, perhaps, is the much larger difference concerning joining Russia’s Eurasian project, a 35 percentage-point gap. Even if Georgia was refused visa liberalization by the EU, a significantly larger number of Georgians expressed the desire to stay clear of the Eurasian Union.
The results for Georgia’s two largest minority groups, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, are not only different from ethnic Georgians, but they are very different from each other. This is also clearly seen in Table 1. Let’s start with the opinions of ethnic Armenians. For Armenians there is only a very small percentage gap between the percent of individuals who would agree and disagree with abandoning efforts to join the EU and NATO (-3 points and 3 points, respectively). In other words, nearly an equal number of people support both options. However, there is a large negative gap between the percentage of Armenians who agree and disagree that Georgia should join the Eurasian Union. The size of the gap is stark: ethnic Armenians living in Georgia are 18 percentage points more likely than not to say Georgia should join the Eurasian Union.
The attitudes of ethnic Azerbaijanis living in Georgia follow a different pattern entirely. Like the nationally representative sample, a larger number of Azerbaijanis disagree with the idea that Georgia should abandon efforts to join the EU and NATO. The gap between disagree and agree for abandoning EU and NATO membership was 20 and 15 percentage points, respectively. However, like Armenians (and unlike the nationally representative sample), Azerbaijanis are much more likely to believe that Georgia should join Russia’s Eurasian Union. The gap between the two positions is 26 percentage points in favor of joining the Union.
Clearly, the minority communities in Georgia hold opinions towards integration that differ greatly from the attitudes of country as a whole. These differences are an interesting area of study that needs to be explored more fully. Needless to say, the Georgian public has overwhelmingly more information about NATO and the EU compared to Eurasia Union. This is because both the EU and NATO have done a paramount job in improving public awareness though various educational campaigns and actual assistance to the state. One possible explanation for the variation observed in the responses to these questions might be the uneven dissemination of information about the EU and NATO across all ethnic groups in the country. This conjecture, however, cannot be tested with the present data set.
In any case, the bottom line is this: the opportunity for visa-free travel is a benefit Georgians deserve. We have earned the right via the implementation of serious reforms. Visa liberalization will only serve to strengthen Georgia’s determination to continue on the path of EU and NATO integration. In the long run this will benefit not only Georgia but Europe as a whole.
GORBI is a regional hub for partner organizations and international clients. Since 2003, GORBI remains an exclusive member of Gallup International research network for its two decades of experience in survey research in post-Soviet Union countries, as well as Mongolia and Iraq. This data was provided exclusively to the Financial.