It is now a year since the unforgettable scenes of Russian tanks rolling over the border into Georgia. After the invasion, Russia, virtually alone in the international community, recognised the independence of the occupied territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as sovereign nation-states. On 13 July, during a visit to South Ossetia, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told an audience without irony:
“I want to thank you for inviting me to this new country, the new state of South Ossetia, which came into being as a result of difficult, traumatic events – a country which the Russian people supported in its hour of need.”
Even though the situation in Georgia has all but fallen off the radar in the UK, developments there should be of interest to all Conservative Party members and I would like to take this opportunity to highlight them today.
A year on, 10,000 Russian troops are still occupying the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia — with illegitimate elections held earlier this year. Furthermore, there are plans to build permanent Russian bases in the two territories. Russia is currently looking at basing its Black Sea Fleet in Abkhazia when the Russian lease runs out in 2017 at the Ukrainian port city of Sevastopol.
Another area of concern is the reduction of civilian monitors in the region. On 30 June Russia forced the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to close its civilian observer mission in Georgia, which had for 17 years monitored the situation in and around South Ossetia, by vetoing the extension of its mandate in the OSCE's Permanent Council. On the same day the U.N. Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG), which had for 15 years monitored the situation in and around Abkhazia, began evacuating its personnel following Russia's veto against that Mission's mandate in the U.N. Security Council. Consequently, the only international observers currently operating in Georgia are those from the European Union. While the EU mission has been welcomed by both Russia and Georgia, Russia is still no closer to allowing EU observers in either occupied territory — where they are most needed.
Just last week, in an event which was hardly mentioned in the British press, Russian troops temporarily moved border checkpoints marking the de facto border between Georgia and South Ossetia. Reports of the incident have conflicted, but the reasons for the attempted shift of the border range from claims based on old Soviet maps to Russian troops seeking better tactical defensive positions.
What does this mean for the Georgian military? It will take a long time for the Georgian military to refit and reconstitute after last year’s invasion. Focus has been placed on improving air defence systems, rebuilding military bases which were destroyed, and learning the lessons from the conflict. Impressively, this has not prevented Georgia from participating in international security operations.
In July, the Georgian Ministry of Defence announced that next year there are plans to send around 600 Georgian troops, roughly a battalion size element, to fight alongside NATO forces in Afghanistan with no national restrictions or caveats. This will make Georgia the 13th biggest contributor of troops to Afghanistan out of a coalition of 42 members, putting some NATO members to shame, especially given the defence challenges the country faces. In fact, if things stay as they are, the Georgian contribution will be larger than other well-established NATO members such as Belgium, Greece, and Portugal.
This should not come as a surprise when considering that at the time of the Russian invasion in August 2008 Georgia had the third largest contingent of coalition forces in Iraq before they had to be rushed home. I want to see Georgia continuing its military reform programme to fit in with NATO structures, so that one day they can sit at the table as a full NATO member.
However far removed we are in the UK from the events in the Caucasus there is a real concern of further hostilities there. Senior Georgian officials have told me of their fears. Russian troops based in South Ossetia are on heightened alert during the one year anniversary period and have just completed a major military exercise in the region. The challenge in the coming weeks will be for Georgia, Russia, and the West to avoid a misunderstanding that could escalate tensions.
Margaret Thatcher understood better than anyone that the peoples of the former Soviet Union wanted and deserved freedom. Georgians still appreciate the firm stance she took then, and their cause remains in our hearts I am proud that David Cameron was one of the first western political leaders to visit Tbilisi and give his support after the Russian invasion. Georgia is located in a vital geo-strategic area, has contributed to NATO operations in the Balkans and Iraq, and will be sending substantial forces to Afghanistan next year. Consequently, my message from the Conservative Party to the people of Georgia on this one year anniversary is one of support.