HL Deb 13 January 2004 vol 657 cc462-5

3.6 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will support more active British and European Union engagement in assisting political and economic transition in Georgia and in supporting its territorial integrity, in the light of the recent presidential election.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has written to President Elect Saakashvili to say that the United Kingdom stands ready to help Georgia to tackle the many political and economic challenges ahead. We support the efforts of the European Union to provide targeted assistance to help to meet Georgia's needs. Our special representative to the South Caucasus, Sir Brian Fall, continues to play a full part in the international community's efforts on questions of territorial integrity. In addition, DfID is working with the Georgians to help to identify priorities for economic assistance.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. Does she agree that it has been unfortunate that the conflict in Georgia has pulled that country apart over the past few years and that it has lost control of much of its territory, and that the slow diminution of EU influence since the early 1990s, as people like me will have observed, has left US and Russia competition as one of the problems for Georgia? Does she accept that this is a tremendous opportunity to help the development of a stronger democracy and the restoration of territorial integrity, and that the European Union, as well as the United Kingdom, could do more in assisting with retraining of forces in adding Georgia to EU neighbourhood policy and in providing the political as well as the economic support needed?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord should not underestimate the considerable support that the European Union is devoting to Georgia already. The Commission said that it is accelerating a 5 million euros payment for food support and a 2 million euros payment for election preparation. This year, Georgia should receive about 12 million euro support for the reform process and 4 million euros' for rehabilitation. If agreement is reached with the IMF, Georgia could also apply for a further 12 million euros for food security and 40 million euros for exceptional financial assistance. An EU humanitarian assessment mission will be visiting shortly. Sir Brian Fall, who I mentioned in my initial Answer, is in Georgia at the moment looking at the question of territorial integrity. Considerable assistance is going to Georgia both from the EU and the United Kingdom.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, does the Minister agree that in this situation, as in so many, education is the key? Can she assure the House that any British efforts to help Georgia will focus on education at all levels and in support of the excellent work of the British Council in Tbilisi? As a Council of Europe observer in the recent presidential elections in Georgia, I saw the dire need in the educational field, if only in that the schools, which were in use as polling stations, were absolutely freezing cold. That was bad enough on polling day; for children going there on a day-to-day basis it must be awful.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, education is always important, when we are considering programmes of reform. However, there are many different priorities struggling to gain the attention of the world community in decisions about the way in which aid is distributed. There are also important questions about how we get stability in Georgia and deal with terrorism, drug trafficking, organised crime and, to a certain degree, corruption.

DfID has devoted £2.1 million for various programmes in Georgia this year, including some relating to governance and civil society. I shall convey to my colleagues in DfID the point that the noble Baroness made about schools.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, my noble friend mentioned the instability in the region and the fact that Georgia has been a conduit for terrorism, drugs and other illegal activities. Does she agree that we should help that country and its new government to become an East-West conduit for energy and trade?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, there is much in what my noble friend says. There is the interesting development in trade, which he mentioned, and the impact of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline through Georgia, which should be a means of generating more income for that country.

It is also important that, at some stage, the EU again considers the good neighbours policy. That is a matter that the EU would have to consider. If sufficient progress is made on issues relating to reform in Georgia, there ought to be a positive response to the possible inclusion of Georgia.

Lord Howe of Aberavon

My Lords, I hope that the Minister will agree that by no means all the problems facing Georgia should be laid at the door of the former president, Eduard Shevardnadze, to whom we all owe a great debt of gratitude for his earlier work. He showed great courage in returning to his country to try to put it in order. Georgia's difficulties are more attributable to long-standing historical and cultural problems that dominate that poor emerging country.

Does the Minister acknowledge that certain lessons may be learnt from what has happened in the Ukraine? The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, and I served for some years on the advisory council there only to find ourselves trying to cope with competing advice from different Western sources. Will the Minister try to ensure that the help and advice given by Britain and the European Union is integrated with that of other helpers to give the new president of Georgia a coherent framework of support and advice? He has a huge struggle ahead of him.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree with almost every word that the noble and learned Lord has uttered. With regard to the origin of Georgia's many problems, the difficulties created by various territorial claims are a long-standing source of instability. We support the efforts of the United Nations and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to find a political solution to that problem.

The noble and learned Lord made a particular point about Mr Shevardnadze. Mr Shevardnadze made a historic contribution to the end of the Cold War and has played a significant role in Georgia since its independence. I agree strongly that it is important that we support the reform process under the new leadership in Georgia, and I hope that my answers so far have indicated that Her Majesty's Government are certain that that is the right way forward.

Lord Russell-Johnston

My Lords, I appreciate and applaud what the Minister announced in respect of moneys being made available through the European Union. May I impress upon her that, for all the idealism and competence of Mikhail Saakashvili, the country could implode, unless it receives exceptional assistance? During the latter time of Shevardnadze's rule, corruption was rife. Does the Minister believe that there is any potential for exerting influence on Russia through the Council of Europe, of which Russia is a member, along with Georgia and ourselves?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, Russia has an important part to play in supporting the future stability of Georgia. I mentioned the visit of our representative, Sir Brian Fall, which is taking place this week. Sir Brian will also visit Russia at the same time as he visits Georgia.

The noble Lord spoke of the exceptional assistance that would be needed. I agree with him that the matter should constantly be revisited. At the same time, it is important to stress that we want to see a real engagement in reform by the Georgians themselves. It is important that we prioritise properly what must be done in that country and that it is done by experts. We have put in somebody from DfID to examine in particular the way in which priorities should be considered, but we also need to see willingness—not just words, but actions—from Georgia with regard to a reform programme.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords—

Lord Grocott

My Lords, it is time for the next Question.