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Russia and Georgia

Volume 685: debated on Wednesday 18 October 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What representations they are making, in co-operation with their partners in the European Union and NATO, in response to increasing tensions between Russia and Georgia.

My Lords, through the EU we have called on both sides to exercise restraint, to tone down the public rhetoric and to reopen normal diplomatic dialogue. With NATO allies, we have called on both sides to refrain from provocative actions. Last week, when calling on the Georgian president, my right honourable friend the Minister for Europe urged a constructive approach. We have directly raised with the Russians the desirability of their lifting the measures taken against Georgia.

My Lords, I am grateful for that reply, but does the Minister accept that the push for NATO to intensify its dialogue with Georgia served to feed Russian paranoia over our own foreign policy intentions and threatens to undermine attempts to secure Russia’s co-operation further afield? Given that the two are likely to be mutually exclusive, what assessment have Her Majesty’s Government made of the benefits to the United Kingdom of Georgia’s co-operation with and support for NATO, compared to the benefits of co-operation and support from Russia, in our efforts to resolve crises in the Middle East, Afghanistan, North Korea and elsewhere in the world? If the Government have made such an assessment, will the Minister share those thoughts with us?

My Lords, there is no desire on our part to make relations with Russia more difficult, but it is worth identifying the basis on which applications to join NATO are made. For example, the decision by NATO to offer intensified dialogue to Georgia, which we supported, was made by consensus of all NATO allies in response to a Georgian request. The process is designed to support and stimulate modernisation and reform, promoting Georgia’s development asa secure, stable and successful country. The responsibility for doing all those things lies with Georgia. The NATO Secretary-General said when Georgia was granted ID that it was of great importance that all parties should strive for a peaceful solution to local conflicts and, indeed, for good relations across the whole of the south Caucasus.

My Lords, with the expulsion of members of the Georgian diaspora in Russia, the economic blockade and the Russian reluctance to accept or to obey international conventions in respect of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, are there not some worrying tendencies in Russia to fail to accept the realities of the post-Soviet world in the Caucasus? Although my noble friend mentioned the decision taken by the EU Council yesterday, is it not true that the Council failed to respond to the appeal of President Saakashvili, printed in yesterday’s edition of Le Monde, for more EU help and in particular for EU borders to be opened to allow further trade from Georgia and to permit greater access for students and business people from Georgia? Therefore, yesterday’s EU declaration did not amount to much.

My Lords, the EU declaration was directed at ensuring that Russia should,

“not pursue measures of targeting Georgians”.

It expressed grave concern and looked forward to a change in economic relations. The EU Foreign Ministers have sent Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner to Georgia to advance those discussions.

I intend to be extremely careful and as even-handed as I can be in this response. We are talking about a part of the world in which the capacity of different combatants to engage with each other, with the most alarming and dangerous regional consequences, is pronounced. For those reasons we must strive not to wag our fingers at people, however tempting that may be, but to produce the conditions for normalisation and stabilisation.

My Lords, while the Minister wants to be even-handed, which I completely understand, is he aware that last week the temperature in Georgia fell to -20 degrees centigrade? Therefore, the decision to cut off gas supplies from Russia to Georgia—although they have now been restored at last—was an act of extreme brutality. Will the Minister convey to our Russian friends that, whatever their quarrels—he may be even-handed between the two countries—that is not a good way of conducting international relations and does not bode well for the future of our wish to purchase Russian gas to keep ourselves warm?

My Lords, the disruption of gas to Georgia is a very serious matter, as it was when it happened for the first time last January. There has never been a satisfactory explanation for the two explosions that occurred more or less simultaneously and cut both pipelines. It is absolutely imperative that the sanctions currently exercised against the Georgian people are not continued, that normal diplomatic relations are resumed and that some of the actions taken against Russia by Georgia, which are unquestionably provocative and unhelpful, are reconsidered, as has been repeatedly requested.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if this matter is not raised with President Putin when he has dinner with the heads of government of the European Union later this week, he will undoubtedly draw the conclusion that it is not high priority for the European Union? Does the Minister therefore agree that the Prime Minister and his colleagues need to say to President Putin that, while they wish to be even-handed, they do not like bullying?

My Lords, whatever the rights and wrongs on both sides of this very complicated situation, which has been developing over the past 16 years, it really is over the top to impose the level of economic blockade that the Russians are now doing to Georgia. Are Her Majesty’s Government pushing hard within the EUto provide the open markets and the economic assistance that Georgia clearly needs?

My Lords, we are concerned to make sure that the economic assistance that is required is provided, largely by the enhancement of trade links. I do not want to be squeamish at all on one point; we regard the measures that have been taken as very unhelpful. That is why I have made—and I repeat—the point that this is one of the sources of tension that could be removed immediately. The return of those accused of espionage by the Georgians to the Russians should have been a helpful first step in easing that tension. We have to build on that and make sure that these sanctions are removed as rapidly as possible.