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Georgia – part of the wider European family?

While Ukraine’s troubles have captured world attention, another of Russia’s neighbours which suffered two annexations only six years ago – Georgia – has almost escaped notice.

Georgia, like Ukraine and Moldova, recently signed an EU Association Agreement which will bring in over 700m Euros in aid and an accompanying free trade deal covering 100% of its imports and exports.

Russia does not take kindly to this agreement since it has cherished hopes that Georgia – the source of wine and tourist resorts long beloved of Russians – would sign on to its own Eurasian trading group. The two countries broke off diplomatic ties when Russia invaded Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, although traditional trade links have since been resumed.

Every UK visitor to Georgia, however, is reminded of that country’s long-standing application to join not only the EU but NATO. Georgia has lost 29 soldiers in Afghanistan where it has made the largest human contribution to ISAF of any non-NATO country.

The British Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Georgia in July, of which I was a member, was no exception. We attended a dinner in Tbilisi hosted by the Defence Minister, Irakli Alasania and were urged by him – and later by Foreign Minister Dr Maia Panjikidze – to support Georgia’s Membership Action Plan proposal at the forthcoming NATO summit in Wales.

The chances of this idea finding favour with NATO members following the Ukraine crisis are very slim, although Georgians accept that short of full membership it will not commit anyone to coming to their defence under Article 5.

There is little doubt that the EU agreement, too, while offering Georgia a welcome into the wider European family, also has its down side in conditionality – namely the panoply of regulations and commitments based on the EU’s ‘Copenhagen principles’ of democracy, good governance and the rule of law.

We spent the first two days in the hotel conference room in the port of Batumi where the agreement had been signed on 27th June. Alongside Georgian MPs attending were delegates from the ‘Visegrad group’ of countries such as Hungary and Poland who gave, perhaps not surprisingly, highly optimistic summaries of their road to membership.

The ‘Georgian dream’ coalition now led by Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, which replaced the extravagant pro-EU government of President Sarkashvili three years ago, is showing proper keenness to accept, if not yet implement, some of these principles.

It has shown more openness to civil society and the media, to reducing high-level corruption, and encouraging more parliamentary oversight. It has tried, not very successfully, to improve on the previous United National Movement’s record of pre-trial detentions, electoral fraud and interference with the judiciary.
The ‘Georgian Dream’ has now won three successive elections – parliamentary, presidential and municipal – and should be in a strong position to implement reform. Nevertheless, the government’s legislative programme remains weak and is not helped by its inheritance of a new parliamentary building in Kutaisi which is unventilated and unworkable.

And no one knows how the government will pay for its programmes in a country unused to European taxation and social benefits. Above all, it will have difficulty in selling EU reforms to the powerful Orthodox Church. The church opposed, and indeed weakened, the Anti-Discrimination Bill before it became law, and it will object strongly to reforms related to sexuality and other liberal elements of the new EU agreement.

Despite these problems, our delegation was convinced that Georgia is determined not to be part of Russia’s playground and will continue to look towards Europe, and perhaps the UK and France in particular, for at least economic and political support.

The BGIPU Delegation to Georgia consisted of Mark Reckless MP (Leader), Jonathan Djanogly MP, Gordon Marsden MP, Meg Munn MP, Lord Haworth, Rt Rev Lord Harries of Pentregarth and The Earl of Sandwich. They participated in The international Parliamentary Conference “Further Steps of Georgia to Europe: the Parliamentary Experience of Visegrad Group Member States” in Batumi, before travelling to Kutaisi and Tbilisi for Bilateral Meetings

The Earl of Sandwich