Georgia debates whether to allow in Russian Council of Europe delegates

31 January 2020
Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili addressing the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on 27 January. Official picture.

A debate is raging in Georgia over whether the country should allow in Russian delegates who have violated Georgia’s ‘Law on Occupied Territories’ to attend the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers in Tbilisi.

There has been widespread speculation that the Russian delegation would be represented by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as well as others who have entered Abkhazia via Russia, a violation of Georgian law.

The controversy began after Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili said Georgia would ‘bypass [its] own national legislation’ in order to allow them to enter. 

She made the comments after a lengthy address to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on 27 January in answer to a question from Leonid Kalashnikov, a representative of Russia.

Kalashnikov asked Zurabishvili how the country would handle Russian delegates who were to participate in the meeting of the Committee of Ministers.

‘Georgia is going to go over and bypass its own national legislation, which prevents people which have visited the occupied territories without our authorisation and without entering through our territory, prevents them from reentering the territory of Georgia.’ 

‘And that would preclude many members of the Russian delegation from entering’, said Zurabishvili, adding that this ‘bypassing’ would come out of international commitments which Georgia respects. 

She added that it wouldn’t be ‘easily accepted by the population, but it's something we will do because we are faithful to our principles and guidelines and to this organisation’.

Georgia’s Law on Occupied Territories does not restrict re-entry into Georgia if violated. It says that unauthorised entry into Abkhazia or South Ossetia not through Georgian-controlled territory is punishable under the Criminal Code of Georgia, which stipulates a fine or imprisonment.

Delegates to the Committee of Ministers enjoy diplomatic immunity, which would prevent them from being arrested and prosecuted under the Georgian criminal code. 

Kornely Kakachia,  the director of a local think-tank the Georgian Institute of Politics told OC Media that Georgia will have to find a way out of this situation, because ‘as Chair of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, it is obliged to provide equal conditions for all delegates, despite the delicate situation this visit creates’.

‘As for Russia, it should be the kind of message that will not allow it to use it against Georgia in the Council of Europe. However, domestically, this will have a very toxic character, because if [the Russian delegation] pays a visit, they will be met with huge protests both from civil society groups and political parties.’ 

‘The Russian government must be ready for this and think twice about whether it’s worth sending such a delegation’, said Kakachia.

He said Georgia’s refusal to host the Russian delegates would be a ‘serious problem’ because Georgia would be failing to fulfil its international obligations.

‘It would give an advantage to Russian diplomacy which wants to cast a shadow on us in the eyes of our friends, the Council of Europe’, said Kakachiua. 

Early signals from Russia

Zurabishvili’s speech was perceived in Russia as ‘active steps to restore peaceful relations’, as Russian MP Sergey Gavrilov called it. He said it showed Georgia was ready to bring back ‘diplomatic relations and the exchange of ambassadors’.

Georgia cut diplomatic relations with Russia following the August 2008 War.

‘Georgia was multinational — Russians, Armenians, Greeks, Kurds, Abkhazians. We hope that Georgia will again become a multinational friendly republic’, Gavrilov told the Russian Parliamentary Paper.

In June, a visit by Gavrilov to Georgia triggered thousands to come out into the streets in protest in Tbilisi, as he addressed the 26th General Inter-Parliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy from the Georgian Parliamentary Speaker’s podium.

After protests broke out outside and inside parliament, Gavrilov was quickly escorted out. But the cancellation of the event and the Russian lawmaker’s departure did not quell the public anger. 

As crowds filled Rustaveli Avenue in front of parliament later that night, some protesters attempted to break through the police line to march into the parliament building. The violence, including the ensuing dispersal by police, left 280 people hospitalised, including 80 police officers. Two people lost an eye after being hit by rubber bullets.

Georgian Dream responds

The ruling Georgian Dream Party has attempted to downplay the controversy.

Chair of Parliament Archil Talakvadze said that Zurabishvili’s quote about Georgia ‘bypassing its own law’ was just an ‘interpretation’. 

Another Georgian Dream MP, Mamuka Mdinaradze, told journalists that the decision to allow the Russian delegation in or not would be made together with Georgia’s European partners. 

‘We will not make this decision independently. We will make it together with our European partners, with the Council of Europe, and in any scenario, our strategic partners will be the co-authors of this decision. Therefore, I can’t speak about the decision in advance’, said Mdinaradze. 

Another ruling party MP, Gia Volski, recalled two prior cases in which a Russian delegation visited Tbilisi.

‘We had a case when we hosted the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Tbilisi and completed our international obligations. However, there was also a case when we didn’t allow in a person who had violated the law and met sanctions as a result.’

‘The Parliamentary Assembly banned us from hosting committee sittings in Georgia for two years’, said Volski, adding that they would consult with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

Several opposition groups have remained adamant that Lavrov should not be allowed entry to Georgia. 

Giga Bokeria, an MP from the European Georgia Party, said people would have a strong reaction if Lavrov were to visit. 

‘I don’t have words to describe what this person means for this country’s occupation. What kind of statement is “bypassing” the law in the first place? At least she could have said we’d change it, even though this would be shameful too.’ 

‘What rational interest is there in allowing Lavrov in when there’s an occupation?!’ said Bokeria.

However, former Georgian president Giorgi Margvelashvili said that Georgia should make a decision based on its national interests. He said Georgia was in danger of ‘angering our European Partners’.

Speaking to Formula TV on Thursday, Margvelashvili said that by not allowing Lavrov in, Georgia might win ‘a moment of dignity’, but that this could undermine Georgia’s image in the eyes of other countries. 

He also said that a visit by Lavrov would present an opportunity for Georgia to show the world how much Georgians protest occupation. 

‘Bypassing’ the law

Teo Piranishvili, a lawyer at the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre told OC Media that there was no reason for Georgia to allow in the Russian delegation.

‘Madam president said that we would prioritise international law over national law. I can’t recall any international regulation that would oblige us to violate domestic laws’, said Piranishvili. 

A group of non-governmental organisations, including the Open Society Georgia Foundation and the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA) responded to Zurabishvili’s remarks about ‘bypassing’ the law with a common statement saying it ‘undermines the rule of law and the fundamental principles of democracy’.

‘Disregarding the law by the highest state and political authority will be a message to both international and Georgian society that laws are formality and that the authorities will decide themselves when they can be violated’, said the statement. 

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