The Georgian government intends to host the 130th Session of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in Tbilisi, in May. Controversy over the potential head of Russia’s delegation may well become the pivotal question of this event, rather than what Georgia’s Presidency has achieved in pursuing its stated priorities. Will Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov decide to come and, if yes, what shall Georgia do about it?
This is a thorny question. In 2008, Russia went to war with Georgia, violated Georgia’s territorial integrity and recognized two of its regions as independent states. The diplomatic relations between two states have been severed. Six years later, Russia acted similarly in Ukraine by annexing Crimea and pulling the strings in Eastern Ukraine.
Following the 2008 war, Georgia adopted its Law on Occupied Territories which restricts entry to Georgia for those persons, who visited the occupied regions from the Russian side and even foresees criminal persecution for repeat offenders. In special cases, however, the Georgian government can waive the ban if the visit in question “advances the national interests of Georgia or helps the conflict resolution” – an implicit reference to diplomatic visits.
Georgia is now torn between its desire to remain a reputable member of the international organization, fulfilling the requirements of its ongoing Presidency by acting neutrally, and an imperative to take a principled stance against Russia’s aggression, by upholding the law on Occupied Territories.
Judging from the address of Georgian President Zurabishvili to CoE’s Parliamentary Assembly, Georgia appears to lean towards the first. Zurabishvili said the country was ready to allow the Russian Delegation into the country, even if they have had violated the Law on Occupied Territories.
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Georgia should not be the only one to compromise, though. Although the attendance of the Foreign Ministers of the member states is generally encouraged by the Council of Europe, the history shows this is not always the case.
Russia may choose to allow for an exception and designate an official less controversial than Sergey Lavrov, one of the vocal enablers of Russia’s aggression against Georgia and Ukraine. Otherwise both Georgia and Russia will have to deal with a justified protest from the Georgian public, that could overshadow the agenda of the Session.
There are precedents to this. In 2017, when the 127th Session was held in Cyprus, possibly due to the absence of diplomatic relations between Turkey and Cyprus, Turkey sent its Permanent Representative to the CoE as the head of its delegation to Nicosia. This might serve as a precedent for Russia’s attendance at Tbilisi Ministerial, with Moscow showing its commitment to the goals of Council of Europe and acting responsibly to advance the international body’s objectives.
In the absence of such responsible approach from Russia, Lavrov’s visit will possibly hijack the Session agenda and pave the way for street-protests in Tbilisi and elsewhere in Georgia. Ordinary Georgians will not find it easy to host one of the architects of Russia’s aggressive foreign policy against Georgia. Russia’s malign influence is felt daily by many Georgians, especially by those living adjacent to the occupation line. Their wounds of the war has not yet been healed.
Given the fact of Russia’s military aggression against Georgia and Ukraine, it is Russia that has to make compromises, not Georgia who abides by the international norms of peaceful coexistence among neighboring and non-neighboring states.
The Georgian government has to make it clear to domestic and international audiences, including to the Council of Europe, that both legally and politically, Foreign Minister Lavrov is not a desired guest in Georgia, and that Russia bears the responsibility for showing respect to the Council of Europe by refraining to flaunt the violations of the Georgian legislation and territorial integrity.