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Georgia: Imprisonment of Mikhail Saakashvili

Volume 828: debated on Monday 27 February 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the government of Georgia about the condition of Mikhail Saakashvili, the imprisoned former president of that country.

My Lords, we are closely following events connected to the detention of former President Saakashvili. The Foreign Secretary raised Mr Saakashvili’s detention, highlighting concerning reports about his health and treatment, with the Georgian Foreign Minister Darchiashvili on 26 January during the Wardrop strategic dialogue. Our ambassador and other officials also raised Mr Saakashvili’s case with the Deputy Foreign Minister during the bilateral segment of that dialogue. We will continue to monitor developments regarding the case.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I ask that the Government continue and redouble their efforts to get Mr Saakashvili appropriate medical treatment. Can the Minister bear in mind that his situation is part of a wider, very serious development in Georgia, which has been hijacked by a multi-billionaire businessman who controls its economic and political life, as well as its media, to keep it within the orbit and surround of Russia? This is a question not just of his human rights but of the whole future of Georgia as a European-looking nation.

The noble and right reverend Lord is right that the treatment of the former president has wider ramifications. While humanitarian concerns are clearly uppermost in our representations on the matter, we have also highlighted the relevance of the Government’s treatment of Mr Saakashvili to Georgia’s domestic political climate, international reputation and broader Euro-Atlantic aspirations.

My Lords, is this not really all about Russia trying to re-exert control in that area by using familiar methods of undermining stable government to do so? Is it not rather the same as what is happening in Moldova, as well as all over the developing world, including in many countries of the Commonwealth, and in Sudan, where Russia is setting up a naval base? Should we not be very careful that while Putin may be failing in Ukraine—and we hope he fails—he may be succeeding rather continuously in those other areas? Does my noble friend agree that we should keep a very close eye on that aspect of what is otherwise rapidly becoming a new cold war?

My Lords, it is right that Russia has been, and remains, a deeply destabilising influence far beyond Ukraine and Georgia. Georgia is under sustained pressure from Russia, which, through its relationship with the de facto authorities of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, is in effective control of 20% of Georgia’s territory. Although we do not see an increase in any direct threat to Georgia caused by Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, Georgia continues to experience Russian aggression. Former Prime Minister Truss reaffirmed clearly our support in the UK for Georgian territorial integrity and sovereignty when she met the Georgian Prime Minister at the UN General Assembly in September.

Does the noble Lord agree that the treatment of Saakashvili will have a negative and adverse effect on Georgia’s approach to membership of the European Union and that, therefore, it is not us but the European Union which has far greater leverage in this respect?

The Government absolutely share that view, which is why, in our representations to the Government of Georgia, we make the point that allegations and stories emerging in relation to the former president are seen in the context of Georgia’s wider ambitions.

My Lords, may I add the name of Nika Gvaramia of the independent television station, who has been put in prison on clearly political grounds like Mr Saakashvili? Has the Foreign Office also protested to the Georgian Government about the substantial reports of increases in truck traffic across Georgia between Russia and other states, which suggests a clear breach of sanctions on Russia and has implications for the Ukraine conflict?

My Lords, we have been following closely the arrest and conviction of Nika Gvaramia. We note the concerns that have been raised about his case and media freedoms more generally in Georgia. On 2 November last year, senior officials met the Georgian ambassador to discuss the outcome of his appeal on 1 November while also noting those concerns. Our embassy in Tbilisi and officials in London will continue to follow this case.

My Lords, can I urge the Minister to return to the subject raised by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, about oligarchs and their malign influence and to see whether any more sanction could be taken? We should not forget about the role of the Council of Europe, which involves significantly more countries than the European Union, and its influence and potential to help us restore democracy to Georgia.

The noble and right reverend Lord’s earlier comments are absolutely noted in relation to the influence in particular of Bidzina Ivanishvili, to whom I think he was referring. We understand that he is a private citizen. He does not have any formal or legal role in the Government of Georgia, but we are aware of reports of his links to Russia. We have raised that with the Government of Georgia, who have assured us of their determination to adhere to international sanctions against Russia. As everyone must, we will remain vigilant as we collaborate with our Georgian partners and regularly review our sanctions designations.

My Lords, when I was a member of the Venice Commission, it was quite clear that the normal courtesies of democracy had broken down in Georgia, so it is no good going around just blaming other people. Can the Minister assure us that the UK Government will put to the Georgian Government the need to conduct their parliamentary affairs in line with what is normally accepted as western democratic standards—in other words, not boycotting Parliament but exchanging power in a civilised manner?

My Lords, we will absolutely continue to press for progress on reforms in line with Georgia’s EU and NATO ambitions. I understand that further discussions will take place in the very near future and we continue to encourage all parties within the Georgian system to interact constructively to enact those reforms required to achieve their shared Euro-Atlantic goals and the will of the Georgian people. The Foreign Secretary met the Georgian Foreign Minister on 26 January, raising those same concerns about developments that are clearly damaging Georgia’s international reputation, its reform credentials and its EU and NATO aspirations.

My Lords, I endorse the concerns that have been expressed about what is happening in Georgia today. Some of us who have been long-standing supporters of the ambition of Georgia to join the Euro-Atlantic family are deeply distressed about what is happening there, especially the treatment of former president Saakashvili and other members of the opposition as well. Will the Government keep up their pressure on the Government of Georgia to make sure that they adhere to the normal standards that one would expect of a country with such aspirations?

I can absolutely assure noble Lords that that is exactly what the UK is focusing on in our discussions with the Government of Georgia.

Will our Government remind the Government of Georgia that their abandonment of rule of law standards will affect the otherwise plentiful opportunities for economic and business co-operation between our two countries, not least because our Government will be bound to advise businesspeople of the danger of working in Georgia, and political risks insurers will simply refuse insurance for debts mounted in Georgia?

The noble Lord is of course right. The broader context—the backdrop—is for the Georgian Government to act and behave in a manner that takes them forward towards their broader Euro-Atlantic aspirations. We are a firm supporter of those aspirations; we believe that further integration with the EU and NATO will deliver greater prosperity and security for both Georgia and Europe. UK programmes fully support democratic reforms and NATO interoperability aimed at progressing the Georgian Government’s aspirations.

My Lords, listening to the Minister, I think he is aware that there is a wider issue here which goes right to the heart of the democratic credibility of Georgia. My noble friend Lord Collins of Highbury previously raised the issue of LGBT people in Georgia, particularly after the very violent protests ahead of the Tbilisi Pride march. Most recently, the Minister—I think it was in November—was clear that there were number of UK-funded projects aimed at building dialogue within Georgia. Can he tell the House whether all those projects remain secure given the cut in ODA funding?

My Lords, the UK continues to work with Georgian partners to combat malign Russian influence, consistent with our efforts and our experience with Ukraine, the Baltic countries and Poland. Over the last five years, our ODA spend in Georgia has been between £4 million and £6 million per year, and non-ODA allocation has grown from £0.2 million to £1 million. We are currently funding a wide range of projects in Georgia, focused on the issues the noble Baroness has raised and more, but I cannot go into specific ODA decisions until those decisions are made public by the Foreign Secretary.