Georgia and the War in Ukraine

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:49 pm on 24th May 2022.

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Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, The Cotswolds 4:49 pm, 24th May 2022

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I pay great tribute to my hon. Friend Mr Djanogly, not only for the informed way he spoke, but for leading a successful all-party delegation to Georgia, as declared in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

We found that the Georgian people are not only extremely hospitable, but very pro-European. In 2020, the chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party announced plans for Georgia effectively to apply for EU membership in 2024, but the geopolitical situation changed. Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February this year, and Georgia responded by expediting a full application and submitting it on 3 March for EU consideration.

This month, further documentation was submitted, with the Georgian Government’s answers to a 2,600-point EU questionnaire on the country’s political, economic and institutional readiness to begin the process of joining the EU bloc. A response from the EU is expected in the next couple of months. During our visit to Georgia, as others have said, we visited a training and evaluation centre organised by NATO, where the level of military co-operation with Georgia is increasing. The Georgians seemed incredibly grateful to us as British Members of Parliament for visiting their country and showing our support.

Georgia is at a crossroads, linking Europe and Asia. It has, over the centuries, been partially or completely conquered by many different powers, including the Persian, Ottoman, Mongol and Russian empires. They have all left their mark on the country, culturally enriching it. It is an incredibly beautiful country, with the Caucasus bordering the north, the Black sea to the west, and the wine regions of Kakheti to the east.

One reason we were invited was to assess the current situation with Russia, which, as others have said, occupies 20% of Georgia’s internationally recognised territory. Unfortunately, as the Georgians reminded us many times during our visit, that occupation, which began in 2008, happened with hardly any protest from the rest of the world. Many would argue that that event, combined with Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, led to Putin’s boldness in Ukraine today. We visited South Ossetia, which is one of the two occupied areas, the other being Abkhazia. Standing on the line of control from Russian occupation, peering through binoculars into the mist and seeing no life at all—most, except some of the elderly, have been driven out—was a very eerie feeling.

The only parallel I can draw is with standing on the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea, again peering into the mist through binoculars into the Kaesong joint industrial centre. The only difference in South Ossetia is that the Russians have purpose-built military forts about every 7 kilometres along the border. There is a direct link road through the Caucasus into the former Republic of North Ossetia, which has also been annexed by Russia.

The democracy of Georgia, after years of occupation by the Soviet Union, is nowhere near as well embedded as ours. Although there is a free press, the majority of the press and media usually toe the Government line. In the Parliament, which we visited, the Government exercise control and the opposition do not have anything like the opportunities for criticism in holding the Government to account that we do. There were allegations, though we were provided with no proof, that the judiciary tends to find in the Government’s favour in the most serious cases.

Having said all that, and to put it into perspective, it is considerable how far the country has come since it was occupied by the Soviet Union. There are free elections, and the former President Mikheil Saakashvili admitted defeat in the parliamentary elections in 2012, allowing the first peaceful transition of power since Georgian independence. So, it is possible for people to exercise democratic power. For instance, demonstrations outside Parliament are a common feature, and they are allowed to go ahead unhindered by the Government.

The war in Ukraine is worrying on a number of fronts, because of the human tragedies that have occurred, with the prospect of future trials for war crimes and even genocide. It is essential that we keep up all the pressure against President Putin through sanctions, disruption of the Russian banking system, trade, continual resupply of lethal equipment to the Ukrainian military and, finally, reinforcing the generous British offer to take in Ukrainians affected by war.

No one yet knows how the war will end. It may even become a prolonged low-intensity war. One thing is certain: the military and political landscape of Europe has changed. That is what the Georgians hope—that somehow, in future negotiations, Russians can be pressured to leave the occupied territories, and that the people and families who lived there for so many generations can return to their homes.

As a farmer, I hope that the west will take control of the supply routes through the Black sea, allowing grain to come out of Ukraine and into some of the poorest countries in the world that are most in need of it. Otherwise, various things will happen. Obviously, the people in those countries will suffer hugely. The Ukrainians will also suffer further, because their grain stores are currently full and, unless they can get the grain out of those stores, they will not be able to put into them whatever new harvest they have to prepare for next year.

I left Georgia with a feeling of hope. The Georgians are a wonderful, hard-working and hospitable people who have endured so much over the years—not least because Stalin was born in the country and it was the location of some of the most brutal purges. The Georgians are determined to build it into a prosperous, modern and democratic country. Historically located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, right at the heart of the old silk route between east and west, they have huge opportunities to trade.

In closing, I pay tribute to the Georgian ambassador to London, who went to huge trouble to organise our trip. We learned a great deal on that trip, and I hope that relationships between Georgia and this country have been, and will continue to be, improved by similar exchanges of views.