I congratulate Mr Djanogly on securing the debate, on his excellent speech and on his enthusiastic chairing of the all-party parliamentary group on Georgia. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as I was also on the delegation that visited Georgia recently. We all learned a lot from that visit and would like to pass on our thanks to the Georgian ambassador in London for all the work that was put into it. I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Member for Huntingdon that the excellent parliamentary relations between Georgia and our Parliament were improved as a result of that visit.
I also point out that the links between Wales and Georgia remain strong. That is evidenced not just in our shared national love of rugby, but through the ongoing success of the really active Newport-Kutaisi Twinning Association, which has maintained the bond between Newport and Kutaisi for over 33 years—many deep and enduring friendships have resulted from it. The twinning association owes a great deal to the work of individuals such as the late Caroline McLachlan from Newport—a former chair of the association who was deeply involved with the twinning from the start—and her very dear friend, Professor Madonna Megrelishvili, the former chair of the sister Kutaisi Newport International Association, who sadly passed away last year.
As the hon. Member said, few countries will have watched the horrific scenes that have unfolded in Ukraine over recent months more intently than Georgia. Like Ukraine, Georgia has suffered the consequences of Russian aggression before, as has been laid out. The brutal 2008 assault on Georgia that claimed 700 lives and displaced thousands of Georgians was, in many ways, a warning bell that the west ignored—emboldening the Kremlin ahead of the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Much like Ukraine, Georgia also incorporates two breakaway regions with close ties to Putin’s regime, Abkhazia and South Ossetia—the latter of which has declared its intention to hold a referendum on joining Russia this July. The presence of Russian troops in Georgian territory ensures that tensions remain high. The people of Georgia live in fear that the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty will be further impinged on by an expansionist Kremlin. In an interview with CNN last week, one Georgian diplomat expressed his concern that Putin is sufficiently unpredictable that he may invade Georgia at any time, for any reason—or for no real reason at all—regardless of the outcome of the war in Ukraine. That diplomat is certainly not alone in his concern.
In that context, the rationale for Georgia applying for NATO membership is understandable. Georgia has already developed a strong working relationship with NATO. It contributed troops to the Kosovo force, and was one of the largest non-NATO troop contributors to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. As a result of the 2014 NATO-Wales summit, the substantial NATO-Georgia package was signed to strengthen Georgia’s defence capabilities in line with NATO standards. During the recent APPG visit, it was really interesting to see the NATO-Georgia training and evaluation centre at work, not least because it was a product of the package agreed at the NATO summit in Newport. There we are: I got Newport in there.
Georgia has participated in Operation Active Endeavour—the counterterrorist maritime surveillance operation in the Mediterranean sea—and has engaged closely with the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in hosting the Georgia-NATO interparliamentary council. That was, at one time, chaired by my very good friend Madeleine Moon, the former Member for Bridgend, whose insight on geopolitics and defence issues is very much missed in this place. She visited Georgia, and the same border with South Ossetia that we visited.
Georgia’s ambition to join NATO is clearly not just a matter of military assurance. Georgia and other aspirant NATO countries see the prospective membership of the alliance—and, indeed, the EU—as a vital signpost of a journey towards democratic governance, the rule of law and an embrace of human rights. None of those values chime with Vladimir Putin’s regime. Russia stands in the way of freedom of choice for the people of Georgia and their Government. The fear is that if they move too far towards NATO or the EU, then Russia will invade. The truth is that the Georgians have been there before, and they have no desire to return. The question facing Georgia is how to meet its population’s desire to strengthen its democratic foundations without generating Russian aggression.
Our Government, working with international counterparts, should work to strengthen Georgian resilience and help prepare the country for any future aggression. The UK should also firmly confirm its support for Georgian sovereignty. Closer to home, our Government must finally get serious about cleaning up the dirty money that props up Russia and other authoritarian regimes. They have not taken enough action over the last decade, and failed to respond swiftly when the Intelligence and Security Committee warned about London being used as a laundromat for money tied to the Putin regime. That cannot be allowed to continue. The Government should follow Labour’s call for urgent reform of Companies House, so that it can crack down on the shell companies hiding cash. Sanctioning oligarchs will be effective only if we know where their wealth is hidden.
I want to finish by reiterating the strong support for the people of Ukraine that exists in Newport East and across the country. Although we may be on different sides if they are Wales’s opponents in the World cup finals play-off in Cardiff next month, we are all on the same side when standing with the Ukrainians in the face of Russia’s actions. The courage and resilience of the Ukrainian people in the face of such barbarism and untold human suffering will never be forgotten. Our Government must continue to support Ukraine and its people, including through the swift and comprehensive disbursement of humanitarian aid.