It is three years this week since Russian tanks rolled into Georgia. As dramatic events unfold in the Middle East and the crisis engulfs the Euro, it is easy to forget the conflicts that remain unresolved in the Caucasus and we must not take our eye off the ball.
David Cameron led the world in August 2008, being one of the first senior politicians to visit Tbilisi. He showed solidarity with the Georgian people, within the range of Russian missiles. I followed in his footsteps a few weeks afterwards and that visit made a great impact on me. I saw the artillery damage from Russian munitions in Gori, the town of Stalin’s birth, the abandoned buildings vandalised by Russian troops, and the displaced people, turfed out of their homes by the invading forces. I wrote after that visit that “if the West, including Britain, fails to address a resurgent Russia, the future for Georgia is certainly bleak and that of Ukraine even bleaker”.
Three years on I recently made another visit to Georgia to meet political and military leaders. What I found was a situation far from bleak, but one which merits our attention. Whilst Ukraine may now be more ambivalent in her orientation, Georgia remains resolutely focused on building links with Europe and the West. The country has made considerable progress in the past three years. The economy is growing, estimated at 6% for the last year, evidenced by the construction going on around the country, especially of hotels. The Government is instituting democratic reforms, including strengthening the powers of Parliament. Georgia is committed to fight international terrorism along with Western nations. I saw for myself Georgian troops being trained by US army instructors at the Krtsanisi Training Centre for the mission in Afghanistan, where Georgia has over 1,000 troops in theatre, the largest commitment of any country per capita.
I was particularly impressed by the strides made in reducing corruption. At my meeting with the Deputy Interior Minister, Eka Zguladze, she explained to me how corruption was so bad in the Georgian police service when the Government came to power that the entire force were sacked, and replaced with new officers. Corruption was virtually eliminated and the lives of ordinary people much improved. This has been noted by Transparency International, who ranked Georgia as first in the world in terms of public perception of a decrease in corruption. I discussed these reforms with President Saakashvili, and it does strike me that the new regimes in North Africa could learn much from Georgia about how to build the capacity of the state in a post revolutionary situation and show quick and tangible changes to the public.
Of much more concern, Russia is continuing to hold onto the spoils of the war, in breach of commitments made to the international community. More than 400,000 people, including many ethnic Georgians, are unable to return to their homes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, over 20,000 of which fled in 2008. Russian attempts to gain international recognition for both territories have failed miserably. Only Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru have acceded to their campaign, the rest of the international community continues to uphold Georgia’s territorial integrity. President Saakashvili has pledged not to use force to take the territories back, and the Government has embarked on a campaign to win over the “hearts and minds” of those remaining.
Thousands of Russian troops continue to be stationed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and I saw this myself when I went up to what the Georgians describe poignantly as the “line of occupation”. As I went up to the checkpoint I could see the Russian troops at their outpost, and indeed at one location I could see the Russians building some type of military encampment, the nature of which was ambiguous. But the message was clear: they are not planning on leaving anytime soon.
It is clear Britain, and other Western allies, have an important role to play in resolving the conflict. Defence Minister, Gerald Howarth, visited Tbilisi in June and announced Britain is sending a military adviser to support defence reform efforts. Our Ambassador is focused on improving trade links as the economy grows. British Parliamentarians work closely with Georgian counterparts in the Council of Europe and elsewhere.
I warned in 2008 that we in the West should not neglect Georgia. That concern remains as true then as it does now. The Russians will be taking note of our level of interest and hoping we turn a blind eye. David Cameron told the Commons recently that he intends to raise Georgia when he visits Moscow later this year. Other leaders must do the same. In 2008 we were caught off guard. We must not make that mistake twice.