TBILISI, DFWatch – The Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Thursday responded to a request by Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov the day before that Georgia should cancel a law that targets some Russians as criminals for having visited Georgia’s breakaway regions.

Cancelling the law on the occupied territories was Lavrov’s precondition for offering all Georgians visa-free travel to Russia.

The issue about the two countries’ visa regimes came to the forefront when Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili decided to unilaterally waive visa requirements for all Russians February 28, a decision dramatically announced in a speech to parliament the same evening and explained as a charm offensive to woo Russian businessmen.

Russia then suggested restoring diplomatic relations with Georgia and drop its visa regime pending further progress.

Georgia broke off diplomatic relations with Russia after the war in August 2008, but accepted the presence of a Russian consul in Tbilisi to process visa applications.

According to Interfax, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on March 14 that Russia is ready to cancel its visa regime with Georgia if Tbilisi will amend the law on the occupied territories; specifically, the article, which makes it a crime for Russian citizens to visit Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

“When Saakashvili announced that all Russian citizens may enter the country without a visa, he forgot to say that Georgia has a law ‘On the Occupied Territories’, under which anyone who has even once in the past, after the war which Saakashvili started, visited South Ossetia and Abkhazia, is under criminal prosecution in Georgia,” Ria Novosti quoted him saying. These people risk from two to four years in jail.

The Georgian Foreign Ministry says Georgia had no preconditions when canceling the visa regime for Russian citizens – not to take away Russian army, not to implement the ceasefire agreement of August 12, 2008 and neither a Russian pledge of non-use of force.

“Georgia’s decision to lift visa requirements is a pragmatic deed aimed at genuinely promoting deeper people-to-people relations, to be contrasted with Russia’s insincere words of ‘love towards the Georgian people’,” the statement says.

Russia tries to politicize the visa-freedom issue, the Ministry writes.

“We understand why Russia continues to politicize the issue of the visa free travel – Moscow has no arguments why citizens of Georgia cannot enter Russia without visas. We have heard many “arguments” and preconditions, all irrelevant and illogical. There was an absurd argument that Russia only has visa free regime with the CIS states and Georgia’s withdrawal from the CIS rendered it impossible to have visa free regime between the two countries. We have also heard the ‘argument’ that Russia needs to have bilateral agreement to lift visas. The falseness of these ‘arguments’ can be easily verified through a simple web search.”

“As for the Law on the Occupied Territories, we would like to repeat that this Law is the result of the state of occupation of the two Georgian regions – Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia. Once the de-occupation of these regions takes place, the Law on the Occupies Territories will lose relevance and will be automatically repealed.”