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Is Georgia Similar to Switzerland?

When I was in my second grade at school, I wrote essay titled “If I were a magician”. I was very sincere in wasting my chance for magic that our teacher had proposed for the dreams of “peace around the world” and GUSSR (Global Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics). Got my A mark for it, with my teacher’s postscript: “Well done, magician!”

After recent events in the summer of 2016 (failed coup d’état in Turkey and subsequent massive repressions; obscure and turbulent events in Armenia and Kazakhstan; escalated situation in Ukraine) I have been getting phone calls from my friends in Istanbul, Almaty and Kiev who were asking me the same question: “How does it feel residing in Georgia?

What kind of country is it? What can an immigrant expect there?” While answering these questions I started musing: if I were a magician, how would I have changed Georgia creating a country where I would have liked my family to live on and on? Well, since I stopped believing in magic a long time ago, my thoughts got back to the rational direction: what kind of a country could Georgia become in an ideal situation? How can it attract smart, educated, cultural, intelligent, well-to-do and enterprising individuals from the surrounding countries experiencing all kinds of calamities? Those people who are actively searching where to leave as a result of existing current circumstances.

My answer to the questions of my friends is simple: Georgia today and, potentially, in the future is an island of calm and freedom in the raging seas around it. Both in terms of its society and its economy. Let us state what is Georgia notable for. It is:

  • a country with a very small territory and a very small population, especially as compared with its huge neighbors which cannot be compared to Georgia in terms of their territory, population, military and economic potential—and all of them have been lustily viewing Georgia as a small, but a very tasty morsel;
  • a multi-ethnic and multiconfessional country with a centuries-old tradition of ethnic tolerance and religious freedom;
  •  a country with a great potential in terms of its nature and climate, yet without an important base of industrially viable raw material resources (with a few exceptions);
  •  a country located at the crossroads of main thoroughfares from Europe to Asia and thus meant for transit traffic.

Such initial data make Georgia comparable only to one country in the world, so we have no other option than to become, ideally, the Switzerland of the Caucasus. Believe it or not, but even ancient legends relating the story of how God created them are very much alike. The Georgian version says that God gave away to the Georgians (who came too late for the distribution of lands) the most beautiful place on Earth that He wanted to dwell in Himself. The Swiss version says that there was nothing left for the Swiss during the distribution of mineral resources. So God decided to give them, instead, “unusually beautiful mountains and glaciers, blue-eyed lakes, roaring waterfalls and great-looking valleys.”

Prior to the status of a neutral country which was established for Switzerland during the Congress of Vienna in 1815, it had been torn to pieces by its neighbors: ancient Rome, Holy Roman Empire, France, Italy, Austria-Hungary and Germany. Switzerland experienced civil wars, including religious conflicts.

In today’s world the Swiss state does not participate in international conflicts, guaranteeing to all of its citizens the freedom of ideological and political views, freedom of speech, conscience and faith. The country boasts of the freedom of the press and the lack of censorship. After two centuries of neutrality Switzerland has become an acknowledged stronghold of peace and tranquility, with no terrorism around, and, undoubtedly, one of the richest countries in the world with a powerful and diversified economy.

Switzerland is multi-ethnic. There are four state languages in the country. The population of 18 cantons speaks German, 4 cantons speak French, 1 canton speaks Italian, and 3 more use both French and German. Under 0.5% of the population speaks a relic Rhaeto-Romance (a kind of a mix between French and Italian, a language of Latin extraction). This linguistic diversity in Switzerland is a result of many centuries of its history plus a mass immigration of foreigners into the country.

Switzerland is multiconfessional. Catholics and Protestants predominate, but all other religions are represented, including Islam and Judaism. There are almost half a million of Muslims in this country with a total population of 7 millions. There is a full-fledged freedom of faith, even if in 2009 the construction of minarets was prohibited be the general referendum. Non-stunned slaughter (as in kosher or halal procedures) is prohibited in Switzerland, because the Swiss considered it an inhumane act.

So, can Georgia become the Switzerland of the Caucasus? Well, it does not any other option! What does it need for that? First of all, stay a neutral oasis of calm in a very sensitive region. It is not such a simple option when 20% of its territory is occupied by its neighbor. Still, the most important thing for Georgia is, in my opinion, to keep intact its main and unique advantages: ethnic and religious tolerance, freedom of thought, speech and faith, also to preserve the social and business environment comfortable for expats and foreigners who reside, work and do business in the country, who came to love Georgia and are ready to become a part of it.

This is why a comfortable language environment should be preserved for them in Georgia. In Switzerland, despite the presence of the four official state languages, not everyone can speak all of them. Each canton may make its own decision regarding which language will become the main to study in school or how well it must be taught.

Today, the German-speaking cantons prefer teaching French in their schools, while the French-speaking part of the country opts, on the contrary, for German in their schools. The lingua franca for everyone is, however, English which is not the official state language, but it is taught in schools in all cantons.

Why do we need this analogy? I simply wanted to stress that the Russian language should not have been eliminated from high school programs during the preceding Georgian government. This is not so much the language of the Kremlin, but rather the language of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky plus (which is much more important for doing business) it is the language of the whole post-Soviet realm, that is of most of Georgia’s neighbors.

Would you guess which language use an Armenian and an Azerbaijani during their resort stay in Georgia? Or imagine that: after Great Britain had left India, its colony, what would have happened if India decided to refrain from using English as its medium of state communication due to the fact that it was the language of the hated colonizers? What would have been left of India in this case considering that it managed anyway to fall apart into three separate states that are in conflict with each other?

In a country like Georgia (just like in Switzerland) an investor must be comfortable with any language, be it Georgian, Russian, Turkish, English or, perhaps, Farsi and Chinese. It is not suggested here, or course, that the languages of all potential investors and/or immigrants should be made state languages. What is possible, however, is to direct the school education towards options for choice. Plus, of course, not to introduce any limitations.

A foreigner choosing Georgia as a country of peace and tranquility, as an oasis for himself, wants to be confident about his future—for himself, his family and his investments. This is guaranteed, first and foremost, via a democratic and stable regime as well as immigration laws that are comfortable for investors. The Georgian state does quite a lot in this direction, but deplorable, counterproductive setbacks do happen at times.

For example, the changes of the visa regime in 2013-2014 (and for some countries, first of all, for Iran, the cancellation of the visa free travel) seriously damaged investment flows plus created the depression on the real-estate market as Iranians on a mass scale started pulling out of their acquisitions selling their real estate in Batumi and Tbilisi. These errors were corrected by now, even though they created quite a number of losses. Predictable and comfortable visa regime and immigration laws are one of the basic conditions for making Georgia attractive.

My last comment is that the predictability of the business climate and the long-term nature of investment regulations are also great factors for attracting foreign investment. That is, however, a very large topic.

Article by Dr. Andrei Maximov