By: Philip Bushill-Matthews
Philip Bushill-Matthews is a Member of the European Parliament and is the Employment and Social Affairs Coordinator for the European People’s Party/European Democrats.
LIKE CZECHOSLOVAKIA before the last World War, for many of us Georgia is also a ‘faraway country of which we know nothing’. But it is on the front line of a power struggle which could have dramatic consequences for us all.
Georgia is a small country – indeed with just over four million people it is smaller than the West Midlands – but it is playing a very major role. It is a vital transit corridor to the West for energy pipelines from the Caspian and beyond. It is rapidly building a prosperous and independent nation, finally freed from the grip of its former Russian masters. Bordering Russia to the north, it literally stands on the final frontier between democracy and dictatorship. To secure its political future, it wants to join NATO and ultimately the EU. Russia has other ideas.
I have just returned from a short visit there as part of the EU-Georgia Parliamentary Co-operation Committee, a group of seven MEPs from seven different nations and four political groups. We concluded with a robust resolution, including a proposal from me for fast-tracking a Free Trade Agreement – a process which they had not anticipated and with which they were delighted.
After President Saakashvili received it, our personal meeting scheduled for 20 minutes lasted well over an hour. He had many thanks to express.
Georgia has two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Encouraged by Russia in recent years, each has declared independence. No other country, not even Russia, has legally recognised them, and the UN has confirmed Georgia’s geographical integrity. Nonetheless, Russia is steadily increasing its influence particularly in Abkhazia, where it is playing a very dangerous game.
It has encouraged the Abkhazis to issue their own passports. It has forced 400,000 native Georgians to flee. It has closed Georgian schools and banned the teaching of the language. It has just increased the number of Russian ‘peace-keepers’, whose real role is simply to keep a piece of Georgia for themselves. Putin has long coveted the 230 miles of beautiful Black Sea coastline, where Russians are increasingly and illegally buying property.
It is a de facto annexation of a chunk of the country, a throwback to the politics of the past, a naked display of Russian aggression. Georgia is seeking the backing of the EU to stand up to it with stronger formal ties – a vivid reminder to us all that, whether we like it or not, in these dangerous times the EU has a definite political dimension.
England and Georgia share the same national patron saint. Their national flag is derived from ours. Their desire for security is the same as ours too. It is in our own interest to help them achieve it.
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