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Russia and Georgia

Volume 704: debated on Tuesday 14 October 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether Russian forces have fully withdrawn from all parts of Georgia, other than South Ossetia and Abkhazia, in accordance with the agreement made with the European Union.

My Lords, in our view, Russian forces have withdrawn from the zones adjacent to South Ossetia and Abkhazia and are no longer in the rest of Georgia. There has been some discussion about the checkpoint at Perevi, which, some believe, may lie a short distance beyond the de facto border and into the rest of Georgia. However, the EU monitoring mission initially judged that this checkpoint lies on the de facto border line. We do not believe that the checkpoint is strategically significant.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Has he dealt with the possibility of a grey area to the east of South Ossetia and is there an obligation on Russia and Georgia to withdraw to the positions which they occupied on 7 August? Finally, will the Government do their level best to ensure that there is the fullest co-ordination between the various observer and peacekeeping groups which are under UN, EU and OSCE mandates?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to raise that last issue. Co-ordination among the EU, OSCE and UN missions is crucial to avoid duplication or mishaps. We have spoken to all parties to emphasise the particular importance of effective co-ordination on the ground. UK personnel in those missions have played a valuable role in helping to ensure that proper co-ordination takes place.

My Lords, does the apparent Russian withdrawal include withdrawal from the area to the south of South Ossetia, Akhalgori, where there is a mixed population and where the Russians appeared to have been until yesterday? On a broader issue, we have heard the American Defense Secretary saying that we should be committed to a NATO membership action plan for Georgia. Is that Her Majesty's Government’s policy, and will we be able to deliver NATO’s full obligations in the Caucasus if we go that way?

My Lords, on that last point, there is a long way to go before we get to that stage. On the noble Lord’s first question, although we welcome the Russian withdrawal from the buffer zone—which is a significant step towards the commitments that the Russians made—withdrawal to the positions held by Russian forces prior to 7 August has not taken place. Therefore, the conditions of 12 August and 8 September under the Medvedev-Sarkozy agreements have not yet been fully met.

My Lords, in view of what the Minister has just said, does he agree that these matters should be raised at the meeting tomorrow in Geneva, so that full implementation of the agreement can be discussed?

My Lords, I agree absolutely with the noble Lord. As he said, the meeting is to begin in Geneva tomorrow and we support efforts by the EU special representative dealing with the crisis in Georgia, Pierre Morel, to prepare those talks.

My Lords, my noble friend may not be aware that I visited Abkhazia in August last year. It became clear to me that the Abkhazians, who are culturally and linguistically different from the Georgians, would be very unlikely to allow the Georgians, who left Abkhazia, or were chased out, in 1993, back to their homes unless Georgia recognised their independence. Is it not time to recognise that the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, like that of Kosovo, is a fait accompli and that the Georgians should be discouraged from unrealistic aspirations to regain those territories? This would not be appeasement but realism and would point the way to a lasting peace in the region.

My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot agree with my noble friend in the slightest. The differences between Kosovo and Abkhazia and South Ossetia could not be greater. As one commentator put it, the international community’s response in Kosovo was an attempt to respond to the evils of ethnic cleansing. Frankly, we believe that Russia’s recognition of the separatist regimes of Georgia risks entrenching ethnic division and makes the return of refugees even more difficult to achieve. If there were to be independence on these terms, it would be a violation of Georgia, which is of course a democratic country.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that the failure of the Russians to fulfil the agreement of 8 September, which he has confirmed they have not done by not withdrawing to the positions they held in early August, must be a germane factor for the European Union in deciding whether to resume negotiations on a policy co-operation agreement? Will he accept my support for what appears to have been the Foreign Secretary’s position in the Council yesterday, saying that the time was not yet ready for that?

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord’s support for the Foreign Secretary’s attitude. He reads the Foreign Secretary’s mind and the Government’s policy on this well. As the House will know, meetings on a new agreement between the EU and Russia were postponed on 1 September by the European Council in response to Russia’s actions in Georgia, and that postponement still holds.