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Russia in Georgia

Volume 825: debated on Wednesday 16 November 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the influence of Russia in Georgia.

My Lords, we fully support Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and we work closely with the Government of Georgia to strengthen their resilience with regard to malign Russian influence through our bilateral defence and security co-operation. The NATO leaders’ summit in June agreed a tailored support package for Georgia that builds on the extensive support provided to Georgia over recent years. We expect the UK to play a leading role in the framework of this additional package, supporting strategic communications and cyberdefence.

I thank the Minister very much for his Answer, but I am not sure that it fully reflects the seriousness of the current situation in Georgia. Political and economic life in Georgia, including the media, is controlled by Bidzina Ivanishvili, the multi-billionaire businessman who made his money in Russia. It is clearly documented that he still has huge assets there in the names of his relatives and business associates. This is worrying enough, but more recently there have been in the public realm 100 files of leading politicians, churchmen and diplomats, with the details of who their contacts are, who they support and any material that might be used for blackmail against them. That shows clear signs of collusion between Russian secret police and the Georgian police, the old KGB. This is a worrying situation; will the Minister ensure that the relevant bodies in the European Union are fully aware of this?

My Lords, first, I recognise the noble and right reverend Lord’s important work in support of Georgia over a number of years, not least since 2008. He raises some important issues of concern, and I will of course take them away. He spoke about sharing them with the important authorities on the ground; we do work very closely with others, including the EU. If there is more detail I can share with him, I will certainly do so.

My Lords, I served for six years on the Venice Commission, where we had many problems with Georgia. Will the Minister use all his influence to encourage the Georgian parties to work together? Part of the fundamental problem in Georgia has been the inability of the political parties within its Parliament to co-operate on even the most basic things, such as the election of speakers and chairmen of committees.

I assure my noble friend that I am all for cross-party co-operation when it comes to good governance in our Parliaments. Despite our different perspectives and challenges, I think your Lordships’ House and the other place reflect that genuine desire to ensure good governance in Parliament. Of course, I take on board what my noble friend said. It is important that all parties work in the common interests of Georgia and ensure that the current occupation and annexation of these breakaway republics is addressed centrally, because this is a violation of its sovereign territory.

My Lords, I have raised with the Minister several times the threat to human rights in Georgia, particularly attacks on workers, trade unions and LGBT people. Can he tell us what steps the Government have taken to engage with civil society? As we often hear, civil society is the main guarantor of human rights when Governments fail to ensure them, so what are we doing to engage with it?

My Lords, the noble Lord knows that I agree with him totally, not just in the context of support for civil society in Georgia but generally. Civil society is core to any progressive, inclusive, functioning democracy. We are providing support in Georgia; for example, through a range of projects focused primarily on confidence-building dialogue, funded by CSF funding. That also helps Georgia take forward public administration reform, parliamentary capacity building and good governance, and includes some of the work we are doing with civil society. On the specific groups we are working with and direct engagement, if I may, I will write to the noble Lord.

Georgia has reported that there will actually be some economic growth in its economy because of the influx of over 112,000 young professionals who have fled Russia. In June, the European Union gave Georgia pre-application status to move towards membership of the single market and customs union, alongside Ukraine and Moldova. Will any of the technical support that the UK is providing to Georgia enable it to move closer to the European Union economic markets?

How Georgia chooses to move forward with the EU is very much a matter for Georgia. However, I can say that we are working very closely with our European colleagues on, first and foremost, the monitoring done within Georgia, particularly vis-à-vis the breakaway republics. Our ODA funding has also grown and that is helping Georgia take forward certain reforms that I have already alluded to. Specific UK funding is also helping it to build its cyberdefences, which, in the current climate, is extremely important.

Given that Vladimir Putin is an unprincipled opportunist, can we take it that the Government are aware of the danger that the exodus into Georgia of Russians apparently wishing not to serve in the Russian forces may well include a fifth column placed there under Putin’s instructions? Will we try to ensure that such a fifth column does not do what some Russians were doing in Ukraine?

My Lords, first and foremost, on the issue of Russians fleeing forced conscription, I think that it is a recognition that the people of Russia themselves do not support what Mr Putin is doing, in his continued violation of the rights of the Ukrainian people. On the specific issue the noble Lord raises, on whatever perspectives may be taking place, and whether some coming through those borders may pose a direct threat, that is why the UK is cognisant of this. That is why we are investing in cybersecurity; I am sure that will help to build the intelligence base as we work with our Georgian partners.

My Lords, my question very much relates to that asked by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile. Do we still have troops or observers on the South Ossetia-Georgia border, which was very much being controlled by Russians on my last visit? I wonder how much has changed since the war with Ukraine.

My Lords, on my noble friend’s final point, there has of course been a refocus on the occupation and break away of the republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. That shows that Russia, back in 2008, had malign influence, which, as well as the territorial significance of the two breakaway republics, demonstrates what Russia’s intent was both in Georgia and indeed in Crimea and Ukraine. On the specific issues, the EU monitoring mission is in Georgia and tracks the breakaway regions. We work together with our NATO allies: there is a liaison office in Tbilisi, and the UK, along with Romania, will take over as the point embassy in Tbilisi from January 2023.

My Lords, referring back to the original Question, have the Government made any assessment of how corrupt wealth is being laundered to get around sanctions in Russia by pushing the money through places such as Georgia?

My Lords, with the implementation of our sanctions policy, we are acutely aware that there will be attempts to circumvent measures taken on both individuals and organisations. Of course, we work with our key partners, including the European Union, to ensure that once sanctions are imposed, they are applied universally. Georgia itself, as the right reverend Prelate will know, has applied to become a member of the European Union, and these kinds of things are also assessed in its reporting. Whether it is here in London or indeed in Tbilisi or elsewhere in the world, we must always remain vigilant towards those seeking to circumvent sanctions policy or, indeed, launder money or illicit finance.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the Government should now make it clearer to the British public that the outcome of the Ukraine conflict has implications for the future of Georgia, Moldova and the various bubbling conflicts in the Balkans, where Russian influence in Serbia and Serbian Bosnia has been very strong? The larger implications of any sort of outcome in Ukraine are not really well understood by our own public. The Government need to lead in informing them.

The noble Lord has valuable insights on these matters and I agree with him. The situation in Transnistria and Moldova is of extreme concern to us, particularly with the Russian influence and presence there. Equally, with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the influence remains very clear. We need an outcome where Russia withdraws from the occupied areas of Ukraine and where the breakaway republics are allowed to rejoin the sovereign territory of Georgia. Of course, regarding Transnistria—Moldova is a very small country; I have seen the challenges it faces quite directly in discussions that I have had—we need to ensure that Moldova is equally assured of its territorial sovereignty and integrity.