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Georgia toughens residency requirements for foreign citizens

5 July 2019
The House of Justice. (Mari Nikuradze / OC Media)

Georgia has introduced tough new residency requirements for foreign citizens in what authorities say is a bid to close a loophole enabling ‘residency reselling’.

New regulations on residence permits in Georgia entered into force on 5 July. 

The Georgian Law on the Legal Status of Aliens and Stateless Persons, amended on 30 May, now requires foreign citizens to acquire real estate with a market value of at least $100,000, up from the previous $35,000 threshold, to be eligible for a one-year residence permit. 

The amendment passed by the ruling Georgian Dream party also toughened regulations for labour-based residency by requiring foreign citizens to have a monthly income of no less than five times the subsistence minimum, currently ₾190 ($68). They must also be employed by a company with an annual turnover of at least ₾50,000 ($18,000) per foreign citizens employed.

The law will oblige the organisation to report the termination of an employment contract with any foreign citizen to the authorities. 

Additionally, the amended law raised the minimum investment value to be eligible for an investment residence permit (IRP) from ₾300,000 ($110,000) to $300,000 (₾840,000) and blocked an immediate path to permanent residency, previously attached to the IRP, with a card issued only for a 5-year permit.

The new IRP will be checked annually by the Revenue Service and the authorities will renew a permit only if an applicant’s annual turnover is no less than $100,000 in the first year, and $120,000 thereafter. 

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A foreign investor will lose their IRP if the minimum $300,000 worth of real-estate acquisition is re-sold within these five years. 

As previously, a foreign investor’s family (a spouse and dependents) are also provided with permanent residency cards.

Before the updated regulations, Georgia issued residence permits with a $35,000 threshold for 6 months to 1 year period, extendable for a term of up to 5 years. 

This policy was met with criticism from both Georgian Dream and the former ruling United National Movement Party (UNM), as well as from the non-parliamentary, ultra-conservative Georgian March movement.

Georgian Dream members, including General Secretary and Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze insisted in recent months that the previous regulations were ‘flawed’ and created a loophole that enabled foreign citizens to ‘buy’ short-term residence permits by acquiring real estate with a minimum value of $35,000. 

This purchased property, according to MPs Gocha Enukidze and Ivliane Tsulaia, the authors of the amendments, were often later transferred to another foreign citizen who was seeking short-term residency, resulting in what they dubbed a ‘carousel’. 

What UNM wanted?

The opposition UNM Party demanded the near-abolition of work-based short-term residence permits, citing the ‘accelerated pace’ of immigration of poor foreign nationals to Georgia, which according to them, ‘did not reflect well on the economy’.

Last September, they proposed coming up with a list of workplaces or professions where foreigners would be employed provided Georgian nationals ‘with relevant qualifications’ did not contend for the same jobs.

As for the investment residence permit (IRP), the UNM supported issuing them only if an investor purchased a minimum of $400,000 of 5-year maturity treasury notes and made an additional investment of $100,000 in Georgia. 

An alternative option for obtaining an IRP would be investing at least $300,000 in Georgia (except for acquiring real estate) and employing at least eight Georgian nationals. 

The UNM also advocated for knowledge of basic Georgian and a record of investment (including into property) in Georgia worth at least $200,000 as preconditions for foreigner to seek permanent residency. 

Saakashvili’s ‘xenophobia’

The UNM insisted that there was an increased inflow of mostly impoverished foreign nationals to Georgia and that the existing immigration policy of the country, if unaddressed, would ‘endanger social stability and radicalise the political landscape of Georgia in the near future’.

In September 2018, former Georgian President and honorary Chair of the UNM Mikheil Saakashvili castigated his successor, Giorgi Margvelashvili (2013–2018) for taking away his citizenship while granting it to ‘5,000 Iranians’. 

In a Facebook video address eight days later, Saakshvili assured Georgians that ‘99%’ of Turkish and Iranian nationals who had received Georgian citizenship during his presidency were ‘ethnic Georgians’. 

In another video address, Saakashvili complained that blue-collar jobs of Georgians were being taken by ‘poor Iranians, Turks, and other foreigners’.

‘Instead of wealthy investors that would employ Georgians, we received penniless migrants that can barely employ themselves […] There is a humanitarian catastrophe in Syria’s Idlib province right now […] Georgia is very close to this region and its borders are totally unprotected’, Saakashvili said. 

A month later, Saakashvili urged Georgia to attract tourists like ‘wealthy sheikhs’, who according to him, usually conduct themselves in a ‘more orderly’ manner and ‘care for their reputation’, unlike low-wage Bangladeshi or Indian workers. 

‘We can't get rich with these starved and… sorry, but grubby people coming in with their own sausages and cans […] We need to make it [tourism] work so that it brings [local] people an income instead of creating a problem, because there are neighbourhoods where you can't hear Georgian’, Saakashvili said. 

Local rights groups have reprimanded him for his ‘false’ representation of official data and for ‘xenophobic statements’. 

In a statement released shortly after Saakashvili’s comments, the Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI) highlighted the official numbers: during 2014–2017, of the 16,000 people who received Georgian citizenship, the Georgian authorities recommended granting Georgian citizenship to only 228 citizens of Iran and 261 citizens of Turkey, making them 1% and 2% of the total, respectively, and putting them behind nationals of Russia, the US, Armenia, Greece, Israel, and Ukraine. 

While advocating for the draft law on residence permits in November last year, Kakha Kaladze referred to Saakashvili’s statements as ‘xenophobic’ and ‘discriminatory’.  

The Tbilisi mayor assured the public that tourists of ‘any financial standing’ were welcome in Georgia, but added that those wishing to obtain residency ‘would have to contribute adequately’ in order to make the local infrastructure financially sustainable. 

Kaladze noted that presidential candidate Salome Zurabishvili, who was endorsed by Georgian Dream, ‘fully supported’ the ruling party’s amendments. 

However, during her campaign launch in mid-August, Zurabishvili also complained that Georgia was a destination point of tourists ‘from the lowest strata’. She said she wanted the Georgian tourism industry to become ‘elite’. 

The Tbilisi-based Tolerance and Diversity Institute (TDI) said they had challenged 13 ‘ungrounded rejections’ of residence permit applications by foreign nationals between 2016–2018, ‘indicating a possible discriminatory policy' towards citizens of African and Asian countries. 

According to TDI, the refusals were based entirely on the State Security Service's conclusion citing undisclosed ‘national security risks’. 

‘Xenophobic’ ultra-conservatives also pointed to money

Tougher immigration laws have been among the central demands of the conservative and ultranationalist Georgian March group. In July 2017 the group staged a  protest against ‘illegal immigration’ on Aghmashenebeli Avenue, a main commercial thoroughfare well-known for its multicultural character.

The following year, Georgian March changed tack and primarily campaigned against ‘drug dealers’ and the ‘propaganda of sodomy’ in Georgia, though some of their conservative members and allies united under an ‘initiative group’ engaged in legal activism to counter the ‘wave of foreigners’. 

The initiative group — led by former MP Dimitri Lortkipanidze and Zviad Tomaradze, the head of the far-right Georgian Demographic Society XXI, campaigned last year against Georgia’s immigration policies. They said immigration would ‘tip the ethnocultural religious balance’ and leave Georgians as a ‘minority in their own country’.

Tomaradze, who is affiliated with Georgian ultra-conservative businessman Levan Vasadze — known for his homophobic campaigns — demanded that foreign nationals must make an investment of at least $500,000 and employ at least 50 locals in order to obtain an IRP.

In October last year, conservative activists organised a rally in front of the Government Chancellery. They claimed that ‘in recent years, Georgia has become an attractive country for Asian migrants’. Chanting ‘No to the Islamisation of Georgia’, they demanded amendments to the law on residency, and the introduction of a stricter visa regime with Iran, Iraq, and other middle-eastern countries.

‘Ban selling residence permits!’ (Besik Jalaghania)

That same month, Zviad Tomaradze insisted that Georgian Dream’s proposed amendments were nothing but a ‘lobbying bill for construction companies’. He also said that the government has no intention of thwarting residence permit ‘carousels’, as large local businesses only see rich newcomers as a potential pool of clients capable of buying more luxurious real estate. 

Ilia Tsulaia, one of the authors of the recent bill, is a founder of the Archi Group residential estate development company, which he led until he became an MP in 2016.

According to Mamuka Abuladze, Senior Fellow of the Tbilisi-based Foreign Policy Council, the portion of companies owned by foreigners in Georgian real-estate development skyrocketed from 11% to 46% in 2010–2016. He said that local housing companies increasingly challenged by foreign rivals might seek indirect help through legislative changes.