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Volume 731: debated on Thursday 27 April 2023

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Julie Marson.)

While Russia’s war in Ukraine has rightly been the object of our attention for the last year and a half, Ukraine is not the only country in the region that is vulnerable to Russian aggression. The current governing party in Georgia, the Georgian Dream party, is a pro-Putin, pro-Russian group whose leadership risks Georgia becoming a Russian puppet in this critical area for global security.

The Georgian Dream party has, from its beginning, been an organisation sympathetic to and increasingly controlled by Russian authorities, all while claiming to be western and democratic. Its founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili, the former Prime Minister of Georgia, is an oligarch who reportedly made his money from Russian dealings. It is alleged that he has used his immense wealth to buy votes and place his loyalists throughout the Georgian Government. Though he currently holds no elected office, he exerts great control over Georgia’s institutions.

The rampant corruption in Georgia’s political system has begun to be brought into the light. Just recently, the United States placed personal sanctions on four judges appointed by the current Government. Meanwhile, Mr Ivanishvili’s one-time rival, Mikheil Saakashvili, is currently dying in hospital after being tried in absentia and jailed on what his supporters say are fabricated charges. He reports from his hospital bed that he has been regularly tortured throughout his imprisonment, and independent doctors have confirmed that traces of heavy metal poisoning have been found in his blood.

When Mr Saakashvili was President of Georgia in 2008, Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia, and Russian troops occupied large parts of the country. At the time, Mr Saakashvili warned that this was the first step in Putin’s quest to rebuild Russia’s sphere of influence and, ultimately, empire in eastern Europe and the Caucasus. He also warned that after Georgia, Putin would turn his eye towards Crimea. Those were then viewed by the international community as rather fringe opinions, but it is now apparent that he was absolutely right.

The 2008 invasion led to continued anti-Russian sentiment in Georgia, with many looking toward European integration and NATO membership. Under the Georgian Dream party, the country has changed direction. European and NATO integration remain popular objectives among the Georgian people, with opinion polls showing nearly universal support. Those objectives are also written into Georgia’s constitution, but the Georgian Dream Government, though purporting to be pro-European and western-friendly, intentionally sabotage the fulfilment of EU entry criteria. The party has also sabotaged support for the Ukrainian war effort, while Georgian citizens have signed up in huge numbers to fight against the Russian invasion.

Even as most European countries imposed sanctions on Russia in the wake of the Ukrainian invasion, the Georgian Government saw a business opportunity and expanded trade with Russia. In the first quarter of this year, Russian imports to Georgia increased by 79% compared with 2022. Georgia has in particular provided a market for Russian energy exports, which the west has avoided—as all our constituents know, that has come at great personal cost. That increase in trade threatens to undermine the sanctions that we have imposed, and will only draw Tbilisi into closer ties with Moscow.

Most recently, in March of this year, Georgian Dream announced plans for a new foreign agent Act that would label society groups critical of the Government as “foreign agents”, risking censorship of anti-Government opinion.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I recognise that he is coming to a critical point. This is about the suppression not just of human rights, but of freedom of religious belief. They walk hand in hand: if someone’s human rights are taken away, so is their opportunity to worship their God in the way that they wish to. Does he agree that, when it comes to the Act that he refers to, human rights and the freedom of religious belief will be under immense pressure?

Actually, that had not occurred to me, and it is a valuable and relevant point.

That foreign agent law in Georgia almost exactly mimics the one that Putin’s Government brought in domestically at the beginning of the war in Ukraine, but it has now been shelved following massive demonstrations in the streets. The trend is none the less pretty troubling. I believe that the British Government must continue to act to support political freedoms for the people of Georgia, and to ensure that Georgia does not provide a way for Russia to circumvent the sanctions that the west has imposed. The Government should join the Americans in imposing sanctions not only on corrupt judges, but on Mr Ivanishvili and other oligarchs responsible. The Foreign Ministry of Ukraine and other European voices have already called for such sanctions.

Oligarchs must not be able to exert control over Georgia without holding any democratically elected office. By preventing those oligarchs from accessing their assets, we would be able to curtail their ability to buy influence and allies in Georgian institutions. It is also time for the UK to lead a diplomatic campaign for Georgia to return to democratic norms. We must decry the inhumane and extrajudicial treatment of former President Saakashvili and demand that his health be placed in the care of independent experts. We must also ensure that Georgia’s next elections are held on time in 2024 and monitored by impartial observers.

Those measures, along with other steps to safeguard the independence of political institutions and media from oligarchical influence, are essential to allow Georgia to proceed to EU membership—a move that as much as 80% of the Georgian population agree with. NATO members must also invite Georgia to enter, as the Georgian Dream Government claim they intend to do. If the west stalls on NATO integration for Georgia, it will only play into the long-term ambitions of Russia.

Indeed, we have seen the result of abandoning Georgia once before. Many people do not know that in 1920, at the beginning of the 20th century, the British Army was stationed in Georgia, guaranteeing its independence after Bolshevik invasion attempts. British troops left in 1920, and only six months later, Tbilisi fell to the 11th Russian army, and the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic was established. The Georgian people remember that abandonment, and we must not make the same mistakes today.

The Georgian people have also stood alongside us and spilled blood in support of our causes. Not only are they the largest source of foreign volunteers in Ukraine, but they were the third largest contributor to the NATO force in Iraq, and the largest contributor per capita in Afghanistan. The Georgian people are proud of that, and we should stand with them. As one mighty Georgian friend puts it:

“Britain’s support is very important for Georgia. There are patriotic people in the Georgian government and parliament, but the pro-Russian groups are getting stronger at their expense.”

With our support, those Georgian patriots can re-establish democracy and maintain peace in their country while furthering the cause of westernisation. Just as we know we cannot allow Ukraine to fall into Russian hands as a result of invasion, we cannot allow Georgia to become a Russian client state as a result of subtle political manipulation.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Julie Marson.)

If duplicitous groups can covertly transform a westernising, democratising state into a Russian satellite without being challenged, then what will stop similar actors throughout that region from following their lead?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) for securing the debate. I note his first-hand experience in Georgia and I am grateful for his characteristically eloquent speech, based on that first-hand knowledge. I am sure all colleagues would agree.

The United Kingdom and Georgia have a strong and enduring relationship, which was illustrated very ably by my hon. Friend. Diplomatic relations between our countries are the strongest they have been since they resumed some 30 years ago, as was demonstrated when the Foreign Secretary visited that country in March. As he highlighted during his meeting with Prime Minister Gharibashvili, the UK remains a steadfast supporter of Georgia’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and Euro-Atlantic aspirations.

Prior to that, in January this year, the Foreign Secretary and I were very pleased to host Georgian Foreign Minister Darchiashvili for the Wardrop strategic dialogue. At that dialogue, we agreed to increase co-operation, including to counter Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, and support Georgia’s aspirations for much closer ties with NATO. That was in the very changed context of last year, because Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has confirmed Georgia’s view that it will never be safe until it joins the EU and NATO.

For decades, Russia has tried to exert control over Georgia and the region, fuelling conflict and division. Following the 2008 war, which resulted in Russia’s recognition of the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian pressure on Georgia has been relentless. Today, roughly 20% of Georgia’s territory is under Russian control, with Russian troops in South Ossetia just 30 minutes from Tbilisi.

Russia is applying economic and political pressure to try to break the will of the people of Georgia, including through restrictions on travel and trade. We should not forget that together with the UK, Georgia has sent more than 5,000 tonnes of vital humanitarian aid and 25 high-powered generators to Ukraine, while supporting Ukrainian refugees in Georgia, and has implemented international sanctions against Russia. That unity sends a strong signal to Putin. We will continue to deepen our partnership with Georgia to increase the pressure on Russia to end its outrageous and illegal war in Ukraine.

Let me briefly make a remark about the breakaway regions. We will continue to use our influential role within the Council of Europe, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the United Nations to call on Russia to withdraw its troops from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Like the overwhelming majority of the international community, the UK does not recognise the so-called independence of those breakaway regions. We consistently call upon the Russian Federation to fulfil its clear obligations under the EU-mediated ceasefire agreement of 2008. It must withdraw its forces to pre-conflict positions and meet its other commitments to dialogue under the ceasefire agreement.

Turning to the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of Georgia, despite Russia’s constant threat and interference, the people of Georgia have bravely chosen the path towards Euro-Atlantic integration, as my hon. Friend alluded to. Such membership is a sovereign choice for Georgia and the member states of those organisations, and no third country, including Russia should have a veto.

We believe that further integration with the EU and NATO for Georgia will deliver greater prosperity and security. The UK will continue to support Georgia in its implementation of the EU association agreement and its NATO commitments. We continue to lead calls in NATO to step up practical and political support to Georgia as a matter of urgency.

We have heard concerns during this debate that actions of the current Government of Georgia appear to align with Russian interests, and my hon. Friend was eloquent in laying those out. We fully recognise, however, the Georgian Government’s steadfast commitment to NATO and the EU, which was reinforced during the Foreign Secretary’s visit in meetings with the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister.

As a long-standing friend, we have stressed the importance of matching words to actions. At this crucial moment, we must recognise that Georgia has consistently supported Ukraine multilaterally, has sent humanitarian supplies, including generators, and has supported Ukrainian refugees in Georgia. We continue to work with Georgia to build resilience against Russian aggression, including through the tailored support package announced at the 2022 NATO summit in Madrid, in line with the will of the Georgian people.

We have also heard concerns about polarisation in Georgian politics, which would threaten its progress on democratic reforms and risks undermining its Euro-Atlantic aspirations. We share some of those concerns, and we have made that clear to our Georgian allies. We continue to encourage the Georgian Government to accelerate genuine, far-reaching reforms, which will anchor Georgia’s democracy against those who would seek to undermine it, and assist it to build its institutions. That includes meaningful parliamentary scrutiny of the Executive, an independent judiciary, free media and a system of fully functioning checks and balances.

As the Foreign Secretary outlined to the Georgian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister during his visit in March, recent actions in these areas have been detrimental to progress, and threaten to tarnish Georgia’s hard-won international reputation. As mentioned, the proposed introduction of a Russian-style foreign agents law was a counterproductive step, particularly as it comes on the back of a marked increase in aggressive rhetoric against Georgian civil society organisations supporting media freedoms, human rights and democracy, which my hon. Friend referred to. We were very pleased to see that draft law withdrawn.

The ongoing incarceration of media owner Nika Gvaramia is another counterproductive step, coming on the back of Georgia’s marked decline in the world press freedom rankings. We also continue to raise the detention of former President Saakashvili, including the need for due process and proper treatment in line with international norms, with the Government of Georgia. We will continue to monitor developments closely in that case and keep it under review. We are determined to work in partnership with Georgia to overcome those challenges and will continue to engage with the Georgian Government as a critical friend to support progress and the Georgian journey of reform.

I should briefly mention some of our projects. Through our embassy in Tbilisi, we are supporting Georgian reforms, as well as wider peace-building, administrative and judicial reform initiatives, through the conflict, stability and security fund and the good governance fund. A total of £4.5 million was allocated to that work in the last financial year. On top of that, last year we announced more than £5 million in additional funding to help Georgia to identify and repel threats to its cyber- security, something that is only becoming more relevant and important.

Let me conclude by reaffirming the UK’s unwavering support for Georgia. With our international partners, we will continue to work to boost its security, strengthen its democratic institutions and increase its prosperity. That includes engaging through the United Nations, the OSCE and the Council of Europe, while working to support domestic reforms in Georgia.

Together with Georgia we will continue to resist Russian aggression and support Ukraine, including through defence and security co-operation and sanctions enforcement, and we will work together in the spirit of collaboration that has defined our relationship for the last 30 years.

Question put and agreed to. 

House adjourned.