WASHINGTON - The European Parliament voted in a landslide Thursday to back visa-free travel for Georgian citizens to 30 European countries.
Voting 553-66, with 28 abstentions, lawmakers granted Georgia's long-sought privilege to travel to the European Union's Schengen zone without obtaining visas.
The visa-free regime was met with excitement and national festivities in the small Eastern European country that's striving for European Union membership while Russian troops occupy two breakaway regions.
“Today is a day of historical significance for Georgia,” Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili said in a statement issued before the plenary vote.
The country's long-awaited visa liberalization enables biometric passport holders to enter the Schengen area for 90 days within any 180-day period.
President Giorgi Margvelashvili congratulated with visa-free grant to Georgian citizens.
“Abkhaz and Ossetian compatriots ... will benefit from this decision,” he said, referring to the two Russian-occupied breakaway regions where the majority of citizens are forced to obtain Russian passports. In order to benefit from a visa-free regime, residents of the breakaway regions will need to obtain biometric passports of Georgia, which are inaccessible in occupied territories.
EU support for Georgia's visa liberalization is viewed as a significant geopolitical achievement among officials and civil society activists who have been strong voices for European integration.
Pro-European pundit Ivane Chkhikvadze, head of Euro-integration program at Open Society Foundation — also known as Soros Foundation — called Thursday's vote a “credibility test” for European support, as Georgia “has successfully met all the requirements of EU's 2011 Warsaw Summit Declaration,” in which representatives of the European Union renewed “their commitment to the objectives and continued implementation of the Eastern Partnership.”
The Eastern Partnership is part of a broader EU initiative to shape relations and integration with post-Soviet states and eastern neighbors.
“Georgia must apply to EU membership and must do it now,” Chkhikvadze told VOA's Georgian Service, adding that it will take a strong political will on part of government officials to complete the application. “It will take years of hard work, and the sooner we beginning the journey, the sooner we become the EU member.”
Davit Bakradze, Georgia's current ambassador to the United States, called the vote an important step in approximating EU standards, which is key to another of long-term national aspiration: NATO membership.
“Georgia has a long road ahead” in terms of finalizing integration-focused reforms, he told VOA's Georgian Service.
Eka Gigauri, executive director of Transparency International Georgia, assumed that Thursday's vote may compel Moscow to demonstrate that the former Soviet republic remains within its sphere of influence.
“Georgia has reached one of the most important milestones of its foreign policy,” she told VOA's Georgian Service. “Euro integration will no longer be regarded as Georgia's one-way effort, and politicians in Europe should not be surprised when Georgia makes a call for membership.”
Russia has openly expressed concern over Georgia's EU and NATO aspirations, describing the country as part of its backyard.
Georgia, which has been seeking European integration since becoming the 41st Member State of the Council of Europe in April 1999, has drafted EU-style legislation to abolish the death penalty, comply with European conventions and battle corruption and organized crime.
The latest public opinion poll by Caucasus Research and Resources Center showed that 56 percent of Georgians identify as European.
The visa liberalization, once fully ratified, will allow Georgians to travel freely through all EU member and non-member countries, along with Schengen candidate countries.
EU member nations include Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden.
Non-member countries are Iceland, Lichtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Schengen candidates are Bulgaria, Cyprus, Croatia and Romania.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Georgian Service.